Martha Surridge, Senior Conservation Planner
People may think that birds can simply fly away from the effects of climate change, but it’s just not that simple—especially for non-migratory birds like the Florida sandhill crane. These tall, red-crowned birds nest in shallow marshes that are already under threat from development and poor land management. Droughts, storms, flooding and rapid rise in water levels resulting from climate change can and will further degrade crane habitat. To help wildlife managers cope with these changes and prepare the birds for future climate conditions, Defenders staff are working with the Florida Wildlife Commission to integrate climate change into their management planning for the Florida sandhill crane and other species.
The Florida sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pratensis) has an estimated population of only 4,000 to 5,000 and is listed as threatened by the Florida Wildlife Commission. In order to breed successfully, these cranes need shallow marsh habitat with predictable water levels and no predators. Climate change will make life in the marsh anything but predictable! Projections for the region include periods of increased flooding interspersed with prolonged droughts.
The ecological consequences of these changes pose a challenge for Florida sandhill crane reproduction. Cranes build their nests from wetland vegetation in about 1 foot of water. These nests can fail after heavy rainfall and localized flooding. At the other end of the extreme, low water levels during droughts will make crane chicks easy prey. When wetlands are dry, cranes may not nest at all. In addition, changes to the timing of rain can shorten the breeding season. Human responses to climate change can further exacerbate the conditions for wildlife. For example, increased diversion of groundwater for urban and agricultural purposes during prolonged droughts will reduce the shallow-water marsh habitat available for Florida sandhill cranes to breed.
Between 1974 and 2003, the amount of potential crane habitat in Florida decreased by 16.6% per decade. Habitat conservation is vital to stabilizing and eventually increasing the population of Florida sandhill cranes; however, this will only be effective if land managers factor in the impacts of climate change when they make conservation decisions.
That’s where Defenders comes in. As part of a State Wildlife Grant, we are working with the Florida Wildlife Commission staff to ensure that climate change considerations are incorporated into the agency’s wildlife conservation and management plans. For the Florida sandhill crane, a “climate smart” approach will need to consider future changes in hydrology and how that will affect the condition and extent of Florida sandhill crane roosting and nesting habitat. For example, managers may need to prioritize protecting and restoring wetland areas that are most likely to persist in the face of climate change. In addition, they will need to allow for adequate surface water to preserve shallow water wetlands when issuing permits to use surface and groundwater. They can also help plan development projects to minimize the future risks of climate change. For example, roads can be placed in less flood-prone areas or constructed to reduce flooding during heavy rainfall. We’re also working with the agricultural community to ensure that the pasture land often used by the birds remain available and suitable for the cranes and their young.
All too often, the potential impacts of climate change on wildlife conservation efforts are only considered as an afterthought. But Defenders is working to make climate change a standard consideration for the management of cranes and other wildlife species. Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission is ahead of the curve, and through our partnership we can devise strategies and guidelines to help other natural resource managers and the wildlife they protect respond to the impacts of climate change.
To learn more about the Florida sandhill crane, effective land use planning and conservation options, see the Florida Wildlife Conservation Guide http://myfwc.com/conservation/value/fwcg/