US officials cite climate change threats in South

Published 1:12 pm Friday, September 25, 2009

Top U.S. wildlife officials said Wednesday they will try to save barrier islands, fight invasive species and work with companies to restore wildlife habitat as they confront the risks posed by climate change across the South.

Sam Hamilton, new director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the South is on the forefront of climate change threats and that coastal wildlife refuges from North Carolina to Louisiana are endangered.

“We’re seeing sea level rise issues, coastal erosion issues, we’re seeing a lot of the sea turtle nesting beaches are stressed and absolutely disappearing,” Hamilton said during a teleconference to unveil the agency’s draft strategic plan to deal with climate change.

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Tom Strickland, assistant secretary of the Interior Department for parks and fish and wildlife, said President Barrack Obama’s administration is playing “catch up.”

“For way too long in the last eight years of the previous administration, the issue was ignored,” Strickland said.

With an estimated 30 percent of habitat in coastal refuges expected to be flooded as glaciers melt and seas rise, officials said they need to look at buying land to help species shift to higher ground in North Carolina, Florida and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast.

“Along coastal refuges, we realize some of these will turn into grass beds and open water,” Hamilton said. “Species will need to migrate and that may be inland.”

Hamilton also said the agency must study how to protect coastal areas, perhaps with oyster reefs and new vegetation, to combat ocean surges and the advance of salt water.

Hamilton said the agency hopes to expand partnerships between government, nonprofits and businesses. He cited two examples in the South.

In the lower Mississippi Valley, a partnership of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Conservation Fund, American Electric Power Co. and Entergy Inc. has led to the planting of 22 million hardwood trees, 80,000 acres of new forest and 40,000 acres of new public lands, Hamilton said.

In North Carolina, Hamilton praised The Nature Conservancy and Duke Energy for helping preserve the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Duke Energy donated $1 million to pay for research to understand how climate change might affect the refuge, the agency said. North Carolina’s coast is expected to lose 1 million acres over the next century as salt water degrades peat soils and kills plants and trees, the agency said.

Hamilton said similar partnerships should be expanded nationwide.

John Kostyack, National Wildlife Federation executive director of wildlife conservation and global warming, said the agency has taken the right approach by seeking to understand what the map might look like in the coming decades.

“We’re going to have ecosystems moving around quite a bit,” Kostyack said. Far too long, he added, wildlife management has relied “on the outdated assumption that the climate of yesterday will be the climate tomorrow.”

On The Web:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast region Web site on climate change: