Thursday, September 17, 2015

Climate Change Threatens Adirondack Boreal Species

Tabor-moose-600x438On a warm day in June, state wildlife biologist Ben Tabor knelt in a dark forest in the northern Adirondacks, peering through his binoculars at a dark shape a few hundred feet away that he suspected was a moose with a GPS collar. After a few minutes, he moved forward for a closer look.

“There’s our moose,” Tabor joked after discovering the shape to be a rotting tree on the forest floor.

It wasn’t the first time this happened. Moose steer clear of people and are hard to spot in the forest. The moose he was looking for is one of a dozen with GPS collars that the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and several partners are keeping track of as part of a multi-year study of the Adirondack moose population.

The study began only last winter, but the results so far are surprising. Adirondack moose appear to be healthy and growing in numbers, in contrast to trends at similar latitudes in other states. Moose populations in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and especially Minnesota have declined sharply in recent years.

Scientists have said warming temperatures caused by climate change are a big reason for the moose decline in other states and pose a threat to Adirondack moose as well.

Winter ticks are taking much of the blame for the decline in the Northeast. Moose have been found with thousands of these ticks, which bleed the animal and can cause anemia and death.

How does that relate to climate change?

Winter-tick populations are believed to be higher when winters are shorter and springs are warmer. Engorged female ticks drop off moose in the spring, and if they fall onto bare ground, they stand a better chance of surviving to lay eggs. Their survival rates drop significantly if the snowpack lingers long into spring.

15-jr-600x749“They’re all pointing their fingers at climate change,” Tabor said about the moose declines. However, he cautioned that climate change’s effects are complex and often interwoven with other phenomena, such as habitat fragmentation, pollution, invasive species, and pests and pathogens.

“It’s not just one thing. When you say climate change, it’s not like you can just walk out and find it and pick it up and [say], there’s the problem,” he said.

Adirondack moose may be doing better than their counterparts because of their low density, Tabor said. For one thing, the moose have ample habitat and food. For another, there is less chance that they will transmit winter ticks and disease.

Perhaps the sharpest decline in moose has occurred in northwest Minnesota, where the population plummeted from an estimated four thousand in the mid-1980s to a hundred or so today. Researchers attribute the decline largely to liver fluke (a parasite), malnutrition, and climate change.

Moose-population-300x178Moose evolved to live in cold climes. Scientists say that persistent warm weather makes them vulnerable to overheating. High temperatures cause them to expend more energy and increase their respiration rates. With average temperatures forecast to rise, Adirondack moose face an uncertain future.

“The one big concern that we have in the Adirondacks is temperature,” Tabor said. “We’re at the fringe of the moose’s range. Basically, there’s no moose south of here because it’s too hot.”

In New York State, moose do not live south of the Adirondacks, though the occasional specimen will wander into the suburbs of Albany. Small populations also are found in forested areas in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Climate-change models also predict that the Adirondacks will see less snow in the future. This poses another problem for moose. With their gangly legs, moose are well suited to surviving in deep snow, whereas white-tailed deer avoid deep snow. If there is a lack of snow, the two species’ ranges overlap—and deer carry a parasitic brain worm that is deadly for moose. As part of the moose study, researchers will monitor snow depths in the northern part of the Adirondack Park.

The Big Picture

Scientists say climate change has been occurring for at least a century. Between 1895 and 2011, average annual temperatures in the Northeast increased by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit, while the average annual precipitation increased by about five inches, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

Temperatures are expected to rise faster this century. If carbon-dioxide emissions continue to rise, a warming of four and a half to ten degrees is projected by the 2080s. If emission rates are reduced substantially, the temperature is still projected to increase three to six degrees.

If those predictions bear out, many species besides moose are likely to be impacted. Scientists say boreal plants and animals —  those adapted to northern climes — are especially vulnerable because, like moose, they are at or near the southern limit of their ranges.

Chickadee-300x300Scientists believe that if, as predicted, spruce-fir forests significantly decrease in the Adirondacks, birds that dwell in this habitat also will decline. One species, spruce grouse, is already rare in the region. Another, Bicknell’s thrush, is relatively rare globally. Two others, boreal chickadee and the bog-nesting rusty blackbird, already appear to be declining in the Park and other parts of the United States.

“We’re probably seeing the end of them being a primary component of the Adirondacks bird fauna,” said Michale Glennon, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Saranac Lake.

Glennon added that she has seen greater declines in some of the resident (or year-round) species than in some of the migratory species (which arrive in spring to breed). “That’s interesting to me because it’s the opposite of what is predicted by some of the vulnerability literature,” she said.

Researchers say migrants may have trouble if climate change disrupts the timing of seasonal phenomena. For instance, birds may arrive in their breeding habitat too late to find berries or insects that they rely on for food.

The gray jay is one resident species in decline in the Adirondacks. In winter, the birds cache food such as insects and berries under tree bark. Studies in Ontario’s Algonquin Park found that warming temperatures spoil the food. This is especially troublesome because gray jays reproduce in late winter when there isn’t much food available in the environment.

The Bicknell’s thrush, a migratory species, is in danger because it breeds only in high-elevation spruce-fir forests—habitat that could vanish if the climate warms. “The thought is that it will be pushed off the mountaintops as those mountaintops become more vegetated or the vegetation characteristics change,” Glennon said.

As boreal birds disappear from the Park, southern birds are expected to move in. The Carolina wren, tufted titmouse, and mockingbird are three species that appear to be showing up in the Adirondacks in greater numbers. Although scientists cannot pin the northward expansion solely on climate change, it’s believed to be a factor.

Boreal habitats such as alpine meadows, high-elevation forests, and certain types of wetlands are expected to be greatly impacted over the next hundred years. In contrast, deciduous forests may not see significant changes in tree species for several centuries or longer.

Montane spruce-fir forests are thought to be especially vulnerable. There are about 213,000 acres of this habitat in New York, according to a 2013 report by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) for DEC. Most of this habitat is in the Adirondacks. Although it represents less than 1 percent of the state’s land mass, it’s 20 percent of the montane spruce-fir habitat in the Northeast.

Adirondack Alpine habitatIn the Adirondacks, this forest is generally found above three thousand feet, where temperatures are a few degrees cooler than in the lowlands. The forests are dominated by red spruce and balsam fir, with a sparse understory. The ground cover is dominated by moss and lichens. Besides Bicknell’s thrush, other birds that dwell in spruce-fir forests include blackpoll, Cape May, and bay-breasted warblers.

According to the NWF report, a rise of five or six degrees in average temperature could spell the end of this habitat in the Adirondacks. Other boreal habitats at risk are bogs, fens, and peat lands, which cover more than eighty thousand acres in New York State, again mostly in the Adirondacks. These are generally found in cold climates where soils are saturated and acidic and the growing season is short and wet.

In the Northeast, the growing season is expected to increase anywhere from twenty-nine to forty-three days by the end of the century, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. It’s predicted that spring will start ten to fourteen days earlier and that the changing and dying of leaves in the fall will be pushed back.

“These changes will have a profound impact on the region’s forests and water cycle including productivity, plant nutrient uptake, streamflows, and wildlife dynamics,” according to the USDA report.

Weather records for New England show that the average annual precipitation has increased 3.7 inches, or 9 percent, in the last century, according to the USDA. The agency’s report, a review of scientific literature, says the trend is expected to continue and bring more extreme storms. Despite the additional precipitation, climate models also predict longer dry periods. There will be less groundwater and stream water in summer, and as a result, forests will be less productive and more vulnerable to pests and disease.

One pest of concern is the woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect from Japan that sucks the sap of eastern hemlocks, destroying the trees. It is now found in the Catskill Mountains and lower Hudson Valley. For the moment, its northern spread is held in check by the severity and duration of winter. If the climate warms, however, the adelgid is expected to move farther north, perhaps into the Adirondacks.

Brown-batA reduction in groundwater and stream water might affect the food web. One species at risk from climate change is the little brown bat, which already has been decimated by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has swept through bat populations in recent years. The little brown is a small bat with high energy demands that feeds almost exclusively on insects that reproduce in water.

“Climate change may influence the availability of those insects by altering precipitation, stream flow, and soil moisture,” the USDA report says. A lack of food could be especially detrimental to bats as they rely on stores of fat to make it through winter hibernation. Lack of nourishment could also suppress reproduction.

Moreover, an increase in winter thaws—another prediction of climate models—could cause bats to awaken before spring and deplete their fat stores. Wood frogs and other amphibians run the same risk.

Hope For Forests

Despite dire predictions for boreal habitat, Charlie Canham, a forest ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, sees good things in the near future for northeastern temperate forests—the type of forest that covers most of the Park.

“From the perspective of a warming climate, the eastern temperate forests of North America are probably the most resistant to climate change of any ecosystem on the planet,” Canham said. “You just think of these species. Sugar maples grow from Nova Scotia to northern Georgia. It’s nowhere near its northern limit of its cold distribution in the Adirondacks, and so a three-degree warmer temperature makes it sort of like Maryland, where it’s perfectly happy.”

Some reports assert that sugar maples will not do well in a warming climate, but Canham said they will do extremely well in the next 150 years. He also said the Northeast has a lot of young forests that will grow and mature in the years ahead. Over the next few centuries, he added, the biomass of northeastern forests will likely double.

“Yes, there’s going to be changes in species, but the big changes in species mix are due to natural succession, given the land-use history of the past and the current harvests,” he said. “Some species are going to decline simply because the logging regime and fire regime that gave rise to those species a hundred years ago is no longer present in the landscape and other species are favored.”

Canham said that his scientific models show that four hundred years from now northern forests with beech, hemlock, sugar maple, and red spruce likely will have more white pine and tulip trees. Beech and maple will still be present, but he expects them to be in fewer numbers. The forests are expected to have more oak and hickory trees.

“You’ll have a forest that looks a looks a lot more like Kentucky,” Canham said.

Illustrations, from above: Wildlife biologist Ben Tabor tries to pick up a signal from a radio-collared moose (Photo by Mike Lynch); “Under The Water” Illustration by Jerry Russell; a Moose (Photo by Mike Lynch); a Boreal chickadee (Photo by Larry Master); alpine habitat graphic by Jerry Russell; and a little brown bat (photo by Larry Master).

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues. Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake. Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at

20 Responses

  1. Mike Buznick says:

    Climate change?? Global warming?? I thought that these mythical occurences were debunked long ago….??! How can an imaginary, non existent thing harm the Adirondacks??
    Let’s move on…climate change…global warming, whatever you want to call it, does not and did not exist. It is all a scam so we are all forced to go buy a hybrid car and put solar panels on our roof and wind turbines in our yards.

  2. Boreal says:

    Now, now…don’t work yourself into a tizzy. Take a deep breath and relax.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    If you truly want to stop global warming, cut the human population by 50% or more.
    Everything else is playing “let’s pretend.”
    You don’t stop a sinking boat from sinking by adding more people to the sinking boat.

    • Scott says:

      Most don’t think of or won’t speak of overpopulation as the root cause…only band-aid solutions.

      • Paul says:

        You don’t have to cut the population you just have to go nuclear like Sweden and France.

        It works. We already have the technology to fix this problem. There is just no real will. Americans just want to argue while the world burns.

  4. Debra says:

    “Might… if… could…may… is expected to.”

    These words sprinkled throughout this article serve to illustrate the questionable nature of the postulate that ‘human induced climate change’ is destroying (will destroy?) the Adirondack ecosystem.

    The climate and ecosystems on this planet have been in a constant state of change since the planet’s formation. To think that anything on this earth should remain unyielding is naive. But to use that notion as a means to make dire predictions, blame humans, or control and manipulate individual’s lives is deceitful.

    The natural forces at work on this planet have been going on for billions of years and they will continue to do so. We just happen to now have the ability to notice what’s going on – in our short time frame.

    We always see changes in the Adirondacks. Ebb and flow of flora and fauna, blights, diseases, insects, even human population numbers. Some hurt to see, some surprise and delight. Learn to expect and live with change. Don’t fear it.

    Do I believe in climate change? Yep, sure do… but not in the way that is currently being marketed.
    I believe in the literal definition of the words.
    The climate changes. Always has, always will.

    • Boreal says:

      “These words sprinkled throughout this article serve to illustrate the questionable nature of the postulate that ‘human induced climate change’ is destroying (will destroy?) ”


      I didn’t get that from this article. Actually, the way I read it, the article is saying about the same thing you are. Of course it is uncertain. There are both short-term and long-term climate changes, which is why glaciers advance, retreat, advance, and retreat within each glaciation. No ecosystem is ever really ‘destroyed’ – just altered. It is obviously uncertain how much humans are impacting climate change, but we are the only species that can knowingly alter our behavior to affect it – however significant it may be. The only certainty is that the climate will change – it is just a question of how much and when. We barely understand the past, let alone the future.

      I thought the article was well written and informative.

  5. Charlie S says:

    Debra says: “The climate and ecosystems on this planet have been in a constant state of change since the planet’s formation. To think that anything on this earth should remain unyielding is naive.”

    Yes but humans are changing the natural order of things Debra at a very rapid rate.We are altering the natural order of things haphazardly, carelessly, wrecklessly, aimlessly…. and it is eventually going to nip us in the bud big time. But who really cares anyway hey!

  6. Charlie S says:

    “If emission rates are reduced substantially, the temperature is still projected to increase three to six degrees.”

    When do we start reducing? There’s laws that ticket drivers for turning right on red in low traffic areas yet no laws for the mindless people who leave their engines running while parked or while shopping which is doing more harm than turning right on red. If it is a must that we start reducing carbon emissions in order to save the earth from cooking I see no hope for us.

  7. Jesse B says:

    Debra, as a scientist who studies the impact of climate change on human health, you are strongly blurring the line between natural climate variation and human-induced climate change. One is the natural force you correctly state has been going on for billions of years, while the other is not. Human-induced climate change, which is the cause for these ecological shifts, is not a natural process and is directly linked to human emissions of greenhouse gases. There is no scientific debate on this fact. And yes, while uncertainty does exist in the magnitude of change the trends are clear in predicting rising global temperatures. Whenever people point out uncertainty as a justifiable reason for inaction, I say it’d be akin to getting diagnosed with cancer yet refusing treatment because there’s disagreement on whether your tumor is nickel or quarter sized.

    • JohnL says:

      “There’s no scientific debate on this fact”. Ah, the old settled science argument! Of course there’s argument on this subject Jesse. You global warming (oops, I’m sorry, climate change) folks sound just like the flat earth people of old.

      • Paul says:

        There is very little scientific reason for any argument on this issue. The only hold outs are folks just like the flat earth people you describe, they can never be convinced because they don’t trust the truth. Let’s face it some idiots out there don’t think that evolution is real despite the fact that it is happening all a round them.

      • Jesse B says:

        Sorry John, but I have to disagree. There is no scientific argument on the subject. The science is extremely consistent in demonstrating a rise in global temperatures as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. This has been shown in tens of thousands of published papers, using a variety of methods, including computer simulations, direct sampling, and chemical tests, and demonstrated by scientists across the globe.

        The scientific confusion presented by the media is driven by a handful of lobbying groups funded by oil, gas, and other industrial groups who most benefit from fossil fuel use. Their science presented is no different than the “science” tobacco and asbestos companies used to muddy waters concerning those harmful effects. What’s most unfortunate is that these companies/stockholders continue to get rich, while ordinary people will suffer the most harmful effects.

        • Paul says:

          Jesse, I agree but I also think that it is just that sometimes folks are just clueless. It is so obvious what is going on at some point it doesn’t matter what the special interests say. Take evolution there isn’t any move to disprove it anymore but some people are sure it doesn’t exist. Remember these are people who require no scientific proof to support their theories. The anti-GMO crowd is a good example. The science clearly isn’t on their side. Doesn’t matter – they just KNOW it isn’t safe and there is something wrong with it. They don’t care what science says. They will just make the false claim that it must be manipulated by this company or that.

  8. Charlie S says:

    JohnL says: “You global warming (oops, I’m sorry, climate change) folks sound just like the flat earth people of old.”

    I suppose we can also say “You global warming deniers sound just like the Joint Land Owners Coalition of (Loco) New York who just a few years ago swore fracking would do no harm to the environment.”

    Since we have stepped beyond the fracking debate and they have lost their right to pollute their land so as to attain wealth there’s been plenty of reports to prove how false those one-track minded Loco’s were. Not surprisingly there have been numerous reports of the potential or outright dangers of the hydrofracking process in Pennsylvania and elsewhere’s in this country since NY banned fracking. Yet these Loco’s swear up and down that they’re right and there’s no danger etc… there’s no convincing them.
    One things fer shur…you cannot argue with people who deny reality.

    By far it is a different world than what it was in the 19th century JohnL.. What’s your point in the statement above?

    • JohnL says:

      No particular point Charlie. It just makes my hair hurt (such as it is) when anyone claims they know FOR SURE the answers to incredibly complicated questions and that no opposing points of view are, in their opinion, valid. Also, you know what frosts my pumpkin? When people leave their cars running while they’re getting gas.

  9. Charlie S says:

    Paul says: “The only hold outs are folks just like the flat earth people you describe, they can never be convinced because they don’t trust the truth.”

    The flat-earther’s were living in a world with not the the advanced technology we have nowadays Paul. They didn’t know any better. We should know better! At the very least we should err on the side of caution versus running towards the flames like we always seem to do because change scares us,or because our wallets aren’t fat enough,or because we have attitude problems due to the incapacity to get beyond the man in the mirror.

  10. Charlie S says:

    Mike Buznick says: “Climate change?? Global warming?? Let’s move on…climate change…global warming, whatever you want to call it, does not and did not exist. It is all a scam…….”

    Yep,let us stick our heads in the sand because Mike knows what’s best for the rest of us!

  11. Charlie S says:

    JohnL says: “It just makes my hair hurt (such as it is) when anyone claims they know FOR SURE the answers to incredibly complicated questions and that no opposing points of view are, in their opinion, valid. Also, you know what frosts my pumpkin? When people leave their cars running while they’re getting gas.”

    Some things should be obvious and need no scientific conclusion to disprove them.

    One of my pet peeves is people leaving their engines running while pumping gas too John. There are signs at the pumps that spell out “Please shut your engines off while pumping gas.” Evidently people cannot read or just don’t care. Or both!

  12. Iris Marie Bloom says:

    Wow. A lot of comments but no real care for the moose and other critters which are actively harmed (in Minnesota and elsewhere) and threatened (in Adirondacks) by climate change in complex ways. What does it take for people to “get over themselves” and do everything possible to reduce GHG emissions instead of sitting around debating as if there is “just one” silver bullet? There is no one silver bullet. We need to stop Pilgrim pipelines from being built, we need each reduce our own footprint, (I get 100 to 250 MPG with my plugin hybrid), we need to invest in energy efficiency, passive solar, solar thermal, active solar, wind, geothermal, air source heat pumps, triple pane windows, insulation, and so much more! We need our public institutions like universities to continue divesting from fossil fuel extraction, refining, transportation and use. We need to fight fracking by stopping the construction of new fracked gas and fracked oil (Pilgrim pipelines) infrastructure in NYS.

    No one person can sit there and reduce the earth’s population with the wave of a wand, but even on that score we do see change, for example the Pope daring to say contraception is ok! Bucking centuries of doctrine to the contrary. Go, Pope Francis… be the change.

    Embrace the change, be the change, just don’t keep your heads in the sand if you don’t want moose having heat stress in the beautiful Adirondacks. Listen real loud to these quiet voices in the animal world. Thanks to the writer and to all who contributed.

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