ADAPTATION:

The agency that wrestles with wayward birds and vanishing coastlines

More questions than answers persist in early efforts to bring climate change into all decisions at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that manages the nation's wildlife refuges and many of its protected species.

As it completes a climate strategy proposed last fall, many of the service's some 9,000 employees are already grappling with the day-to-day implications of a warming climate. That starts at the top.

During FWS Director Sam Hamilton's visit to a Mississippi Delta refuge situated hundreds of miles from the Gulf Coast, local staff asked him what should be done about the roseate spoonbills. Normally coastal birds, they were appearing at the refuge for the first time in reported history.

The managers wanted to know whether they should change their strategies to actively welcome the new arrivals.

Hamilton did not have a good answer yet. Historically, Hamilton said in an interview, such decisions would happen at the refuge -- but the new questions posed by climate change require a higher-level policy. "That's where we have to get our house in order, to deal with responses like that," he said.

FWS is now busy realigning its policies, priorities and investments to answer these mounting questions.

Already, rising sea levels are threatening many coastal refuges, while invasive species and pests are charting a course into new terrain. And a growing pile of petitions to list new endangered or threatened species are citing global warming as either a primary or a contributing cause.

Those factors will all force tough decisions at the agency, said Hamilton, from whether the agency should pull back from sinking new resources into disappearing coasts to where it designates critical habitat for wildlife listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a law already notorious for a lengthy work backlog and endless litigation.

Investing in more science

The biggest immediate need is to beef up the agency's scientific capacity, a long-neglected area, Hamilton said.

"We really need to make more informed decisions about how we're spending our money and where we're doing our habitat restoration. But to do that, we have to have some pretty solid science to back it up," he said.

A hallmark of that effort, tied to the Interior Department's broader climate strategy, is an initial $25 million investment this year to set up nine "landscape conservation cooperatives," in which federal, state and outside researchers will collaborate to tackle regional climate questions. Eventually, the goal is to support a total of 21 centers, said FWS spokesman David Eisenhauer.

With each focused on particular representative species, the centers could help feed FWS information it needs to make climate-oriented decisions and predictions.

To do this, scientists face a daunting task of wedding global climate data to regional models specific to a habitat or wildlife population.

Such information, for example, would help FWS predict where a species might migrate as climate warms -- and plan how to help it get there. An effort to set up a migration corridor in the Northern Rockies is already under way to deal with threats like climate and habitat fragmentation. There, ranchers are getting payments to keep their lands instead of selling to developers.

Facing up to polar bears and angry litigators

Conservation advocates are generally pleased with the progress that FWS has made over the last year in beginning to plan for climate change. But their patience is not unlimited.

"They are saying the right things, but we need to make sure that a year from now, they are not still completely in planning and research mode. Soon, there will be an expectation that there will be changes to restoration and management programs on the ground," said John Kostyack, global warming and wildlife conservation director for the National Wildlife Federation.

Doing so, he said, will quickly require FWS make not only scientific judgments, but value judgments about where to invest limited resources in saving particular species or lands.

Hamilton noted as much, pointing out that many coastal and polar areas of the United States are more rapidly experiencing the effects of climate change. "More and more, I think we're going to guiding our land acquisition program inland," he said.

The most daunting climate questions face the endangered species program, for which the Obama administration is considering wide-ranging broader reforms. Under its climate strategy, FWS is in the early stages of reviewing how this law, and others it operates under, will pose barriers or opportunities to address climate change.

The lightning rod has been the sea-ice dependent polar bear, listed as threatened under the Bush administration after a long series of lawsuits. But at the same time it listed the polar bear as threatened, FWS sought to avoid using the listing to evaluate the greenhouse gas emissions of projects evaluated through the ESA's consultation process, a rule the Obama team has upheld. Some environmental groups, however, are still pushing for that to change.

When do you decide you can no longer protect?

But other endangered species issues are just coming to the fore. Hamilton noted that agency scientists will likely end up having to revise many existing species recovery plans -- there are upward of 1,000 -- to factor in climate concerns.

And there are legal questions, as well. The agency will have to decide whether it can designate critical habitat for a species outside of its current occupied range or even outside of its historic range. It could go so far as actually moving species to safer terrain, where snow won't melt or a marsh won't flood in the future.

Hamilton called these options possibilities but said they are uncharted territory that will require better scientific and legal work. "We don't have the policies in place at this point to really dive into these issues," he said. "When do you decide, for example, that you can no longer protect something in the wild?"

But already, four conservation groups have sued the service because they say climate change was ignored in a critical habitat decision for the Canada lynx. They say the designated habitat couldn't possibly save the reclusive cat, because of snowmelt in its current turf. In the decision, FWS punted on the issue, saying it would consider climate factors during a five-year review of the species.

So far, however, there haven't been too many decisions testing these questions. But that could change soon. Janette Brimmer, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, a frequent ESA litigant, said she is taking a wait-and-see approach to how the agency would handle them.

Hamilton, however, said he doesn't feel climate change will increase the time his staff members spend in the courtroom. "I don't know if we can end up there any more than we are already," he said.