Around the world, animals and plants are shifting their geographic ranges in response to climate change. As changing temperatures and weather patterns continue to force species to move out of their historic ranges, many species will require high quality habitat within their new ranges to be able to successfully expand into these areas. Habitat-based conservation strategies such as corridors and restoration can provide suitable habitat and aid in the dispersal of displaced organisms. However, a major question remains: will these habitat-based conservation strategies sufficiently protect species under climate change?
A new study by Wessely et al. addresses this important question by using climate change predictions and simulations of range shifts to examine how habitat conservation will affect the ability of species to persist and expand their geographic distributions. The authors looked at three habitat-based conservation strategies: improving habitat quality within existing protected areas, creating corridors to connect natural habitats, and improving or restoring habitat within the general landscape. Working with 51 species of vascular plants, butterflies, and grasshoppers in Central Europe, the authors compared simulations of range shifts and population dynamics with and without these habitat-based strategies.
The authors found that though habitat-based conservation benefited some of the study species, these strategies were not able to fully compensate for expected range losses under climate change. Of the roughly one in five species of vascular plants, butterflies, and grasshoppers expected to go regionally extinct under projected climate change scenarios, none were saved through the inclusion of habitat-based conservation strategies. Habitat-based strategies were, however, effective at reducing range loss for many of the other species that persisted, particularly those found in lowland areas.
The authors stress that despite their findings, habitat-based strategies are still a necessary part of conservation. Methods such as improvement of protected areas and the creation of habitat corridors are particularly effective in expanding existing populations and species ranges under current climatic conditions, and have great potential for mitigating range loss of many species under projected climate change. However, these methods are unable to fully compensate for range loss when used as the only form of conservation. Other methods such as relocation and assisted migration may benefit some species as well, but the only known way to fully protect species is to slow down or stop climate change itself.
Wessely, J., Hülber, K., Gattringer, A., Kuttner, M., Moser, D., Rabitsch, W., Schindler, S., Dullinger, S. and F. Essl. 2017. Habitat-based conservation strategies cannot compensate for climate-change-induced range loss. Nature Climate Change 7(11), 823–827.