Preparing Refuges for Rising Waters

Restored marsh at Blackwater NWR (area inside stakes used to be open water) Photo courtesy Noah Matson

Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern shore of Maryland with a few other Defenders colleagues.  The refuge, at over 27,000 acres, is one of the largest protected areas in the state, and is famous among birders and local residents for its large concentrations of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, bald eagles, and is also home to the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel.  Since the 1930’s, however, Blackwater has lost over 8,000 acres of marsh from a combination of sea level rise, subsidence, and the impact of invasive nutria that eat marsh grass and contribute to erosion.

It isn’t the only coastal refuge attempting to stave off rising waters. Two hundred miles south from Blackwater lies the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  Made up of “pocosin,” a type of forested wetland found in the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina, the refuge is home to the only wild population of endangered red wolves in the world.  Most projections of sea level rise put a large portion of the refuge under water in the next 50 years.

As stewards of protected areas and wildlife populations, we have to ask – why does it matter if these places go under water? If they disappear, where will the wildlife that rely on these protected places go?

These situations have been met with drastic measures. At Alligator River, refuge staff, the Nature Conservancy and other partners are implementing measures to slow coastal erosion and salt water intrusion in order to protect forests and marshes. And the Blackwater refuge has restored 20 acres of marsh by experimenting with a dredger to spray mud onto former marsh to raise the marsh bed, followed by planting marsh grasses to stabilize the soil. A decade later that marsh remains. Unfortunately, the refuge continues to lose 300 acres per year. So the refuge staff has an audacious proposal: barge or pipe mud and soil from the dredging of the Baltimore harbor approach channel in the Chesapeake Bay to the refuge to repeat the marsh restoration on thousands of acres, a cost of over a billion dollars.

As stewards of protected areas and wildlife populations, we have to ask – why does it matter if these places go under water? If they disappear, where will the wildlife that rely on these protected places go? These are questions an individual refuge manager cannot answer alone.

red wolf

With the loss of Alligator River, endangered red wolves may have nowhere to go.

In preparing wildlife and natural resources for the impacts of climate change, we must take a big-picture view. Before zeroing in on a particular place, we need new tools and institutions to help policy makers, managers and scientists work together to understand how wildlife and habitats will respond to the impacts of climate change regionally and across jurisdictional boundaries. The Obama administration has launched a number of initiatives that hold some promise for achieving this goal, creating the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives and crafting a National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. It isn’t everything we need, but it’s a start.

Keeping Blackwater and Alligator River from sinking into the sea – and protecting all of our refuges from the impacts of climate change – is critical. We need to do so in the context of addressing the much bigger task before us, figuring out how to help prepare entire systems of wildlife and habitat for the impacts of a not-so-slowly changing world.

Learn more:

Learn more about the threats facing Alligator River, and the measures being taken to save it, in the NPR piece, A Struggle to Fight Back the Sea.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is the first national wildlife refuge in the nation to develop a comprehensive strategy to adapt to sea-level rise. Read more about the efforts the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are taking to rescue the refuge from rising seas.

See how Defenders is working to protect wildlife and protected lands from the threats of climate change.

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