Whether man-made or natural, the topic of climate change has at least one certainty: temperatures are getting warmer across the globe. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, seven of the top ten warmest years on record for the lower 48 states have occurred since 1990, and the last 10 five-year periods have been the 10 warmest five-year periods on record. This phenomenon has a direct effect on wildlife--most notably in shortening, or even eliminating, hibernation periods. Climate change and wildlife concerns go hand-in-hand.
In the same time frame, the population of the United States has blossomed by nearly a quarter, with two key impacts on wildlife. First, more people means a greater production of greenhouse gases--which many maintain contribute to climate change. Secondly, populations continue to move outside major cities, encroaching more into wildlife habitats and introducing wild animals to more threats and food sources.
The net result? People now live closer to wildlife than ever, and as the climate changes, animals such as bears and hawks must adapt to the new world. Reports of bears in suburban neighborhoods have increased, as have instances where people and pets have been attacked by birds of prey and other wildlife. Consider this: if you were a bear who was accustomed to eating berries and nuts in the woods, then had a taste of day-old, leftover pizza outside a person's house, what would you choose for your next meal?
As climate change has raised temperatures, it has also shortened hibernation periods--meaning that wildlife have a longer eating, breeding, and movement cycle. This increases the likelihood that people and wildlife will collide in neighborhoods, and the close proximity may lead to more attacks and dietary change among wildlife. Hawks develop a taste for small dogs. Turtles and alligators find refuge in retaining ponds. As mentioned before, bears are drawn out of the woods and closer to human food, and skunks, raccoons and other woodland creatures are likely to follow suit.
While these changes in patterns may provide opportunities for wildlife in the areas of food sources and habitats, they also pose significant threats to wildlife. More roads and more cars mean that more wild animals can be hit by cars. More development in the form of neighborhoods and shopping malls means the elimination of traditional habitats for wildlife.
Climate change and wildlife encroachment also brings the specter of disease transmission between people and wildlife. People will ordinarily think immediately of rabies, but plenty of diseases not typically seen in humans—some with few cures or treatments—can be harbored in wildlife. For example, deer can play host to ticks that carry Lyme disease, Ehrlichia, or Tularemia, all of which have received very little study and have no known cure.
Much has been written about man’s role in climate change. Some speculate that carbon dioxide and other so-called “greenhouse gases” produced by factories, livestock, and vehicles act as a blanket, preventing heat from exiting the atmosphere. But surprisingly little research has been dedicated to climate change and wildlife, as well as the collision course posed by suburban encroachment alongside wildlife adaptation.
Although the debate continues about what’s causing the earth to warm, one thing is certain: there is much study to be done about climate change and wildlife will be among the topics of greatest concern.