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A glance for what?s ahead: effects of environmental change on crucial wildlife habitat

Despite the chilling winter endured throughout the eastern half of the U.S. this year, scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that, globally, 2014 was the hottest year on record. Global temperatures are projected to continue getting hotter. Scientists throughout the world are investigating what the impacts of past and continued future climate change may be for various regions.

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Virginia Seamster, NMSU post-doctoral research scientist, is conducting a project to determine how climate change may impact crucial wildlife habitats in New Mexico and surrounding states (NMSU photo provided by).

Researchers at New Mexico State University are assessing potential effects of future climate change for wildlife found in New Mexico and neighboring states.

Virginia Seamster, a post-doctoral research scientist at NMSU, and a team of five other researchers are developing bioclimatic niche models for several species of conservation concern. These models are based on datasets regarding species occurrence and present day climatic conditions. They allow for an evaluation of species? sensitivity to changes in climate projected for the years 2050 and 2070.

?We aren?t predicting the future, but we are creating several alternative futures based on climate data projections that can provide insight into the decision-making process regarding wildlife conservation and management,? said Associate Professor Ken Boykin, principal investigator for the project and ecologist from NMSU?s Center for Applied Spatial Ecology.

The two-year project, funded by the U.S. Geological Survey?s South Central Climate Science Center, began in September 2013.

The goal is to look at the potential effects of climate change for 20 terrestrial vertebrate species found in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. In particular, niche model results help researchers and wildlife managers visualize what the distribution of suitable climatic conditions may look like for these species in the future.

?Climate change is a huge issue and has the potential to affect many species throughout New Mexico,? Seamster said. ?This type of project could influence future revisions to New Mexico?s State Wildlife Action Plan and work being done by wildlife managers in the state, including biologists at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.?

Comprised of researchers from Natural Heritage New Mexico at the University of New Mexico, the New Mexico Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, NOAA?s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology at NMSU, the team is determining what change in suitable temperature and precipitation conditions for species looks like and how important it is to consider uncertainty in the future climate and a range of changes that may happen.

The first year Seamster and her team looked at over 200 species and determined which might be vulnerable to the effects of climate change and are of interest to different agencies throughout the three-state focal region. Biologists at state and federal agencies provided feedback, narrowing the field to a total of 20 mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Now in the project?s second year, the team is looking at present day climate and how it relates to where the species are found and projecting those relationships into the future.

?Average annual temperatures are projected to increase across New Mexico and the rest of the south central region that we?re focusing on for this project,? Seamster said. ?Projections for what will happen to precipitation are less certain, but show a decline in annual rainfall amounts across much of the south central region. In general, occurrence of droughts and other extreme climatic events, such as heat waves, are projected to increase.?

?For drivers of the change in climate, the climate models that produce the future climate data I am using take information on potential future concentrations of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, as an input,? Seamster said. ?Ultimately the research community will develop socio-economic scenarios that accompany the information on greenhouse gas concentrations.?

Project results will be incorporated into the New Mexico Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool, a web-based viewer developed by Natural Heritage New Mexico and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

?The study is designed to provide information to land managers and decision makers to assist in their respective efforts,? Boykin said. ?Incorporating the information into the CHAT will help managers and decision makers gain access to this data. Knowing the potential range of responses provides these groups with direction on how to work with available resources, both natural and financial. With the information we are providing, land managers can look into the future to see what may happen on the ground and make reasoned adjustments to their management efforts over time.?

This project is developing a framework for creating and displaying models of the distribution of suitable conditions for biota in a climate change context. This framework could easily be applied to other species and geographic regions. Integrating project results into a web-based conservation information system will inform land use decision-making and ideally help to reduce conflicts between future human development and wildlife.

Seamster, a native of Farmington, New Mexico, received her Bachelor of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from the University of Virginia.