Habitat loss, extreme weather pose unadaptable threats for Missouri’s wildlife

As sea levels and temperatures rise, humans must adjust their way of life to fit the changing world around them. But for wildlife, who have only their instincts to rely on, climate change poses a different kind of threat.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, “climate change is quickly becoming the biggest threat to the long-term survival of America’s wildlife. No longer is climate change something only facing future generations—changes to our climate are being documented all across the planet today, and people, animals and plants are already feeling the heat.”

Animals and their habitats are facing the effects of climate change in many ways, with fluctuating precipitation levels, gradual warming and more frequent and intense extreme weather events forcing wildlife to adapt more quickly than they might be able. 

Shawn Cramer, a Missouri native and longtime birdwatcher, has had his eyes on the sky for as long as he can remember. 

“As far as the wildlife, literally, I don’t have a memory that doesn’t include me being interested. I have a Birds of North America book at home,” Cramer said. “That was my grandmother’s, and I sat on her lap before I could read, and had her read to me about bald eagles. I remember it like it was yesterday.” 

In the more than 50 years he’s been birdwatching, Cramer has noticed some altered behaviors that could potentially be attributed to climate change. Because of warmer winters and decreased prairie land across Missouri, some species are changing the ways they behave, where they live and whether they migrate.

Years ago, Cramer saw an unfamiliar bird. Staring at its gray and yellow feathers and cross-referencing his bird book, he realized that this species wasn’t listed in his book of eastern birds—those that are typically found in Missouri. 

So, he had to do some research on what it was and where it could have come from. Scrutinizing the pages of a book on western birds, he finally found a match: western kingbirds. And then he realized just how far out of its habitat this bird was. 

“We have lots of eastern kingbirds in Missouri, but not a lot of western kingbirds at that time,” Cramer said. “And now I’ve got a nesting pair here.”

Now, he watches them from his office building every day. The shift in the prevalence of the western kingbird’s move from abnormal to mundane in the eyes of birdwatchers is just one of many climate-spurred transitions that Cramer has witnessed personally. Climatic fluctuations have initiated adaptations from various bird species’ statewide. Whether it’s the northern expansion of the scissor-tailed flycatcher’s territory, Kansas City’s peregrine falcons halting their migration in favor of staying in urban areas during winter or Canada geese populations going from nearly extinct to flourishing into neighborhood pests. 

In order to safeguard these ever-adapting populations and shrinking habitats, Missouri’s conservation groups are working harder than ever to prepare  for the worst.  

“The approach that the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has taken so far, and I think this is pretty typical of a lot of state agencies, is that we can’t do much about any root causes of climate change,” said Dr. Jacob Westhoff, an aquatic scientist with the MDC. “And so we have to be ready and prepared for any variation that might come, whether natural or anthropogenically driven.”

Anthropogenically driven change — anything caused by humans — is  behind nearly 100% of warming since 1950, according to an assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC). While humans are not the reason the earth is changing in the first place, we are the reason change is happening so quickly.

This warming affects everything in nature, including rainfall averages, heat increases and more. According to Westhoff, preventing habitat loss and keeping animal populations stable is the end goal for the MDC, even if climate change is hard to completely predict and adapt to. 

“We just kind of have to interpret what’s out there. And, you know, there’s a lot of variation and uncertainty in that modeling,” Westhoff said.  “So we have to consider that, interpret that and think about how that might affect the organisms that we have here that we oversee.”

And affect organisms it does — climate-change-induced extreme weather such as prolonged snowstorms, frequent drought, flooding and insufficient or excessive rainfall all disturb the balance that organisms in nature depend upon. 

For example, if the intensity and frequency of rain increase from levels historically observed, Missouri streams may experience unnatural flows, increased sediment in the water and movement of the stream bed. This type of sudden change is something aquatic life can handle a few times in a season, but climate change threatens to increase extreme weather conditions to a level that might leave the streams changed forever, forcing organisms to adapt to survive. 

“If any of those changes (occur) outside the normal parameters, then that’s something the animals have to be able to respond to,” Westhoff said. “And each species has differing levels of capacity to respond to that.” 

Making change and protecting Missouri’s wildlife will take more than just state agencies pushing for conservation. In Missouri, where only 3.8% of acreage is federally owned, strengthening habitats and restoring land for wildlife is a one-on-one experience. 

Bill White, chief of the MDC’s private land services division, has helped Missouri communities protect the land they own for over a decade. 

“If we’re going to have a positive impact on some of that declining wildlife, whether it’s monarchs or grassland songbirds or bobwhite quail, we really need private landowners engaged,” White said. 

That might be easier said than done. Natural phenomena such floods, droughts, fires and more are hard to predict and can decimate the habitat restoration and wildlife protection work of the MDC and communities. For Cramer, who has spent a lifetime learning about the birds of Missouri, protecting their habitats is second nature.

“You kind of know where the areas are,” Cramer said. “I’d say, ‘Don’t clean that fence row out, because that fence row of native weeds and all the pollen causing crap is also what is really good quail nesting habitat.”

Now, Cramer doesn’t have access to private land that he can make more bird-friendly. But to help people who are interested in preserving wildlife and the landscape in which they inhabit,  the MDC works to give those private landowners incentives such as grants and cost-shares to improve the quality of their land, and encourages landowners to learn more about the habitats they own as well as  spread the word about the importance of conservation in Missouri. 
To learn more about conservation efforts and how you can improve Missouri’s natural wildlife habitats in your own backyard, check out the MDC’s improve your property page or dive into some research articles about what animals and habitats Missouri has to protect.

Anna Kutz is a senior at Mizzou studying multimedia journalism. She is passionate about reporting on issues related to the environment and agriculture.

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