Climate Change Effects on Wildlife in the South-Central US

 Aug 10, 2015    by Toni Klemm

Wildlife habitats and wildlife migration are big issues when it comes to effects of climate change. While the planet continues to warm - 2014 was the warmest year on record according to NOAA – warm seasons become longer and cold seasons become shorter in many parts of the US. This allows some species to expand their geographic ranges while other species may experience unsuitable climatic conditions or have to cope with new predators and competitors for food. New research at New Mexico State University (NMSU) highlights how climate change affects ecosystems and species migration in the region, information that can be used to inform decision-making on the state level.

Virginia Seamster finished her Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences in 2010 at the University of Virginia. During her post-doc at NMSU she was part of a team of 6 researchers studying 20 terrestrial vertebrate species, which include mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, in Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. "Average annual temperatures are projected to increase across New Mexico and the rest of the south central region that we're focusing on for this project," Seamster says. The team used climate projections for the years 2050 and 2070 from models that were also used in the latest IPCC report. These projections were used as inputs for so-called species niche models, which can estimate a species’ range based on known occurrences of the species. In a reverse engineering kind of approach this allows the researchers to estimate how the distribution of suitable climatic conditions for certain species may change as the regional climate changes.

Virginia Seamster’s post-doc research was funded by the South Central Climate Science Center. The center is one of eight climate science centers (CSC) in the US and conducts applied research in the south-central US with the goal of supporting climate-related decision making in the region. The CSCs conduct a lot of outreach and education in their respective regions, but also fund and conduct scientific research. "This type of project could influence future revisions to New Mexico's State Wildlife Action Plan and work being done by wildlife managers in the state, including biologists at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish,” Seamster explains. "The study is designed to provide information to land managers and decision makers to assist in their respective efforts," says Ken Boykin, ecologist at NMSU and lead investigator of the project.

Virginia Seamster has recently transitioned from her wildlife-related post-doc position to a job at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. There she is involved with reviewing and helping to select research and other projects focused on non-game wildlife that the department funds annually through its Share with Wildlife Program. She also helps to maintain the Biota Information System of New Mexico, which provides information on the biology and ecology of thousands of species found in New Mexico. Finally, the Ecological and Environmental Planning Division that Seamster is now a part of is leading the process for revising New Mexico’s State Wildlife Action Plan.

Publications abouts this research are forthcoming.

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Virginia Seamster studied how climate change affects habitats of 20 vertebrate species, like the Lesser Prairie Chicken. Photo: Mark Watson, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish

Virginia Seamster. Photo: Jocelyn Apodaca, NMSU Press