Climate Change is Having a Big Impact on Small Mammals

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Snowshoe hare. Photo from Denali National Park
Climate change has arrived. The years of waiting and watching for the changes we were told to expect are over. We have seen drought, sea level rise, and melting glaciers. In addition to this, sensitive wildlife species are already suffering from the effects brought on by a changing climate. Sea turtles are losing their nesting beaches due to sea level rise, coral reefs are dying off from ocean acidification, and moose are being impacted by growing tick populations.

While many of these stories are well known, there are other wildlife species that could benefit from some attention: small mammals. These little guys are less flashy than butterflies, but they are struggling nonetheless.

Climate change will bring transformation to every ecosystem and impact most species in some way, both big and small, predator and prey. It is important for us to understand these impacts and attempt to alleviate and mitigate them in every way we can. Without stable ecosystems we may start to see biodiversity loss and even extinction. The wild places where we enjoy hunting, fishing, and camping may no longer be able to support our favorite activities nor the wildlife we cherish.

The Tiny Herbivores

Pika. Photo by Stephen Torbit
Pikas, marmots, and snowshoe hares are all small mammalian herbivores. They play critical roles in their ecosystems as a food source for larger wildlife, such as foxes and lynx. Additionally, they help maintain species diversity in their ecosystems by grazing on plants that could outcompete other species.

If these small herbivores are pushed out of their habitat by climate change, then invasive plant species may spread, causing larger predators to go hungry.

The Forest Caretakers

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Delmarva fox squirrel. Photo from USFWS
Tree squirrels, such as the flying squirrel and the Delmarva fox squirrel, play important roles in forest regeneration. They bury seeds and nuts (a behavior called food caching) as a form of food storage so that they have food later in the season. These buried seeds and nuts are sometimes forgotten and they can begin to grow into new trees.

In addition to this role as tree growers, squirrels also are an important food source to predators. Changing climate and rising seas are pushing these forest caretakers out of their preferred habitat, and they are struggling to find new places to live.

The Population Controllers

The predators that prey on these smaller herbivores, such as the arctic fox and the American pine marten, are equally important to the stability of ecosystems. They keep small mammal populations under control so that the herbivores don’t overgraze, and the predators prevent disease from spreading by killing off sick wildlife. However, these species and others may go hungry because the lack of snow is making it difficult to hunt during the winter.

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Pine martin. Photo from USFWS

The Future

In order to protect wildlife like small mammals from the impacts of climate change, we must reduce carbon pollution. The National Wildlife Federation is supporting the following policy measures that will help cut our carbon emissions:

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    Marmot. Photo from the Bureau of Land Management
    Clean Power Plan: This new rule will reduce carbon emissions from the main energy source in the U.S.- the electric generating sector. This rule was finalized in August 2015 and states are just beginning to implement new energy policies to meet the requirements of the CPP. Effective state implementation promises to make drastic cuts in carbon emissions while spurring a wildlife-friendly clean energy economy.
  • Standards for methane pollution: Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management have put forth rulemaking efforts to reduce the harmful and wasteful methane emissions from the oil and gas operations. Methane has about 20 times as much warming capacity as carbon dioxide and is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S. (after carbon dioxide). Regulations are commonsense solutions that will significantly reduce the amount of methane emitted and wasted in drilling operations on public and private lands. It will also serve to reduce harmful ground-level ozone pollution, which harms wildlife and interferes with recreational opportunities.
  • Reduce fossil fuel use and development: From fuel efficiency standards that reduce the amount of gas our vehicles need to decisions to reject unnecessary dirty energy infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL pipeline to efforts to ensure coal leases on our public lands account for the costs of carbon pollution, we need to slow and reduce our use of polluting fossil fuels.
  • Support wildlife friendly clean energy solutions: We must invest in clean, renewable, responsibly sited energy solutions like offshore and onshore wind, solar, geothermal and sustainable bioenergy. We must also invest in energy efficiency to reduce our demand and make the most of the energy we do produce.
Take Action

Speak up to protect wildlife – big and small – from climate change!

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Published: January 29, 2016