Alaska acknowledges effects of climate change

Posted: Friday, December 03, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Alaska's fish and wildlife managers have released a state plan anticipating effects on Arctic bodies of water, fishing industries and wildlife resources brought on by climate change.

The state is suing to overturn the federal listing of polar bears as a threatened species because of declining sea ice habitat but the 19-page report released this week begins by acknowledging that scientific and traditional evidence increasingly shows climate changing at unprecedented rates throughout the Arctic.

"We have to take a look at what could possibly occur," said Doug Vincent-Lang, endangered species coordinator for the Department of Fish and Game.

The report, called "Climate Change Strategy," noted warming temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, altered stream flows, loss of sea ice, increased wildfire patterns, thawing permafrost and coastal erosion.

Warming and precipitation changes were expected to affect freshwater quantity and quality throughout Alaska and likely will affect wetlands, rivers and lakes, especially shallow lakes maintained by permafrost, the report said.

The report anticipated that access by anglers to water bodies may change, as could subsistence opportunities. Distribution of fish may be altered, with a shift to species tolerant of warmer waters, it said.

Changes in fire patterns will hurt some terrestrial species and help others, the report said. For example, moose could benefit in some areas that experience more fires, whereas woodpeckers or other species dependent on old growth forest could suffer.

Distribution of seal species could change as a result of altered sea ice conditions, the report said. Ocean acidification has the potential to alter the marine food web, affecting commercially targeted fish.

The report is an outgrowth of an effort launched by former Gov. Sarah Palin, who formed a climate change task force to prepare a climate change strategy for Alaska.

Vincent-Lang said the fish and game department has stayed out of the debate of climate change causes but thought it was time to take stock of the effects.

It's no different, he said, than looking at how oil and gas development or other human-caused actions could affect fish and animals.

"The climate is changing," he said. "As a result of that climate change, what are some of the things that we anticipate are going to occur to fish and wildlife, and as such how are we going to be able to adapt our management program to assure that we continue to provide for a sustained yield and sustained uses of those resources?"

The report will be used to make regional managers aware that climate may be a factor in wildlife management, Vincent-Lang said. It will also underscore that climate change should be considered as a variable in planning research.

A key initial action, the report said, will be to fill information gaps on Alaska's species of greatest conservation concern so that steps can be taken to prevent them from becoming threatened.

"As climate adds another stress onto species, we'd like to be able to collect more information and be better able to manage those species so that they don't become listable under the Endangered Species Act," Vincent-Lang said.

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