Anderson Shepard, Conservation Planning Associate
Instead of wilderness and wildlife, could visitors to Glacier National Park soon be passing fields of wine grapes as they drive up to the gate? Not long ago, I helped author a study that suggests that by 2050, this could very well be the case. In the paper, titled “Climate Change, Wine, and Conservation” and published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), we looked at how rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns are affecting the delicate balance of temperature and moisture – the primary elements for growing high-quality wine grapes.
Using climate models and an analysis of the current distribution, temperature and moisture requirements of high-quality wine grape varieties, we project that climate change will shrink the area suitable for wine production in some of the most famous wine-producing regions in the world, while opening up wine production in some unusual places. Alarmingly, we found that climate change could soon drive a massive expansion of agriculture into some of the most intact wildlife habitat in the U.S., impacting dozens of species.
Although I performed this research before coming to Defenders, its message is still wildlife-focused. Agriculture can be a huge driver of habitat loss and degradation, and Defenders has spent an enormous amount of time and energy advocating for policies and actions that would promote habitat conservation and coexistence between farmers, ranchers and wildlife, putting solutions in place to protect animals like bears and wolves. Climate change threatens to take this issue to a whole new level. Not only will it change the biophysical landscape and cause shifts in the existing natural assemblages of plants and animals, but, as this paper shows, it is expected to open a great deal of new land to agriculture, causing more natural areas to be developed and more wildlife habitat to be broken into pieces.
The Northern Rockies is a region where we focus much of our work at Defenders. The region is flush with extensive tracts of wildlands, and it is the last remaining area in the Lower 48 that hosts a complete set of large carnivores – one of the few places you can find animals like bears, wolves, lynx and bobcats all together. Our study found that between 2000 and 2050, the land in the Northern Rockies suitable for viticulture (growing grapes for wine) will increase by more than 58 million acres. The next 50 years will likely be a trying period for species such as the Canada lynx, gray wolf and grizzly bear – these species are likely to see vineyards popping up all over their range over the next few decades. Wolves attempting to roam across long-established territory will find acres of it replaced with land that is useless to them. Bears, often captured or killed when caught taking advantage of orchards or other fruit crops, will be sorely tempted to wander into new vineyards looking for a meal, only to put themselves in danger. Combine that with the region’s continuing surge in development, and we see impacts on a scale that could dramatically alter these species’ ability to thrive in the region.
We could see these impacts on an even broader scale if the shift in lands suitable for vineyards also holds true for other agricultural crops. This could put even more species in danger, caught between a changing climate and the ever- expanding human footprint on the land. For the conservation community, the key is to spot these issues early on and help the relevant industries to plan carefully so that we can minimize the damage to wildlife. In fact, this is already happening in some regions where wine growers are working closely with conservationists to confront the environmental, cultural and economic challenges posed by a changing climate. It is up to individuals and organizations like us to ensure a future for wildlife despite the challenges of a changing climate.