How Landscape Conservation Cooperatives Implement Climate Science

 Sep 15, 2015    by Jessica Blackband

Conservation organizations working to conserve species and their habitats are faced with many challenges at present: shrinking financial resources, a burgeoning human population, and highly unpredictable threats such as climate change. The nationwide network of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, or LCCs, emerged in response to this uniquely challenging moment in the history of conservation. There are 22 LCCs in the US, and together they encompass its entire geography. Each LCC is led by influential public and private organizations already working on the ground to advance conservation and natural resource management. These networks promote cross-jurisdictional collaboration within the conservation community, recognizing that many landscape stressors defy political geographies. The LCCs also recognize that preserving healthy ecosystems in the face of 21st century challenges requires decision-making that is driven by the best available scientific knowledge: that’s why they bring multiple stakeholders together to identify common conservation research questions and get them answered.  

Many (although not all) LCCs are interested in addressing climate change because its effects are so wide-ranging, and because its localized effects are so uncertain. I joined the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GPLCC) team as a communications intern this summer, at least in part because I’m interested in the human dimensions of climate mitigation. I wasn’t familiar with the LCC model before my internship, but I think it’s an idea that people of my generation should be aware of. Landscapes bleed into each other so much and resources are so scarce that any environmental scientist or advocate needs to be trained in seeking out opportunities for collaborative work, and the LCCs are an institutionalized example of that mindset. A recent collaboration between the South Central Climate Science Center (SC CSC) and the Great Plains LCC (GPLCC) illustrates how networks like the LCC can identify shared data needs and express those needs to institutions capable of producing actionable science. I’d like to describe this collaboration to give readers an example of how an LCC can work, the kinds of problems they’re concerned with, and why they are affiliated with the Climate Science Centers. It is important to keep in mind that the GPLCC and the SC CSC share a commitment to actionable science (or science that can be immediately used by interested parties), and that the activities of the GPLCC are not necessarily representative of all other LCCs.

A high priority for the GPLCC, which encompasses parts of eight Midwestern states, is restoring the connectivity of fragmented grassland. GPLCC partners suspect that climate change will exacerbate challenges for maintaining this ecosystem, and as a result of their participation in the LCCs these partners have recognized a shared need for climate planning tools. However, climate models alone are often insufficient for land management purposes because they do not directly provide information about the effects of a changing climate on the land- how will different climate scenarios affect vegetative cover, species abundance, or phenology (life cycle patterns)? These questions need to be answered if conservation practitioners are going to take climate change into account in their decision-making.

The SC CSC and several GPLCC partners (including Playa Lakes Joint Venture, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S Geological Survey) have begun collaborating to address this need in a region of the GPLCC designated as a pilot area for several other modeling endeavors. Plans are in the works to integrate existing high resolution land cover data created by the states of Texas and Oklahoma with climate projections and assimilate these with the BLM’s Rapid Ecological Assessment, for which the USGS has consolidated data on the population and distribution of several priority natural communities and species habitats in the project area. The SC CSC is providing support and critical knowledge to the project with their downscaled climate datasets for the Red River watershed.

The resulting models will empower land managers to take the effects of climate change into account when making decisions on the ground, allowing them to plan for the long-term. For example, a refuge manager might be tasked with allocating limited funds to one of two habitat restoration projects. He might know through his involvement with the LCC that he shares a species of concern with an adjacent refuge, and that providing more habitat by enhancing connectivity will benefit the species. He may also consult the models produced by the effort described above and notice that one project area and the adjacent refuge are both predicted to experience little land cover variation due to climate change, while another project area is expected to lose some land cover. By focusing funds on the area that is expected to experience less loss, the refuge manager provides the species with enhanced habitat connectivity that is less likely to be undone by climate change. Such analyses could be the difference between local extinction and survival for a species of concern.

The land cover modeling effort serves as a powerful example of how conservation organizations can come together through the LCCs to articulate unknowns, explore future scenarios, and leverage partnerships with other agencies (in this case, the SC CSC) to find answers that will directly inform their decision-making. Multi-agency collaboration, driven by collective recognition of mutual goals, is essential to developing coordinated climate change mitigation strategies that will produce landscape level benefits for humans and wildlife alike. These kinds of projects stir my imagination because they demonstrate the essential nature of robust communications networks between scientists and ecological decision-makers. At every stage of our careers, we would do well to contribute to these networks and actively build them through the science we pursue.

The project is still in its early stages, but the results will be available through USGS ScienceBase and the Great Plains LCC website upon completion.

About the author: Jessica Blackband is a recent graduate of Florida State University, where she earned two Bachelors degrees: one in philosophy and one in environmental studies. She is now an SCA/Americorps Communications Intern with the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative. She hopes to use her communications skills to pursue a career in urban environmental planning. 

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Photo: Great Plains LCC