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.

Take action to protect vulnerable wildlife from climate change – tell the Environmental Protection Agency to scrap their proposed pro-coal plan:

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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:

  • small mammals
    Marmot. Photo from the Bureau of Land Management
    Clean Power Plan: This rule, intended to reduce carbon emissions from the electricity generation sector, was finalized in August 2015 but the Trump administration is working to repeal it. In its place, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to install a pro-coal rule that would encourage coal-fired power plants to continue releasing their carbon-heavy, climate-disrupting emissions. We need strong restrictions on carbon pollution, not weak rules promoting the coal industry. Take action now.
  • Standards for methane pollution: Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management previously finalized rulemaking efforts to reduce the harmful and wasteful methane emissions from the nation’s oil and gas operations. Methane has about 80 times as much warming capacity as carbon dioxide in the short-term and is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S. (after carbon dioxide). Yet, both the Bureau of Land Management and Environmental Protection Agency have rolled back these rules under the current administration, placing our climate and wildlife at risk. Take action now.   
  • Fuel Economy Improvements: The transportation sector recently surpassed electricity generation to become the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States. Carbon dioxide emissions from this sector have been rising since 2013. Significant emissions benefits are possible through strengthening federal clean car standards that improve fuel efficiency and lower tailpipe carbon pollution—and preserving California’s Clean Air Act authority to set more stringent standards.
  • 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, while ensuring new energy infrastructure minimizes impacts to wildlife.
Take Action

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