New Terrain

Maintaining biodiversity in a changing climate

Sue Galatowitsch

Can we protect and manage the region’s biodiversity in the face of climate change? Restoration ecologist Sue Galatowitsch responds.

Imagine spending your summer vacation camping out in a “state savanna” rather than a state forest, spotting a trillium, a red pine or a white spruce as rarely as a four-leaf clover. As the climate changes so, too, will our natural landscape. Many of the species that give us a sense of place may be unable to survive over the next century.

Are we prepared to protect and manage Minnesota’s biodiversity—that is, all the different species of plants and animals that live here today—in the face of a changing climate? This is a question that Susan Galatowitsch, a restoration ecologist at the University of Minnesota, has been thinking about a lot lately, and one she recently answered for us.

How is Minnesota's biodiversity being impacted by climate change?

I think our best information comes from northern forests, boreal forests in particular, where we’re seeing a much higher regeneration of things like the red maple, which we wouldn’t have expected to see under historic climate conditions; and a lack of regeneration of species that we would consider colder-climate trees like pines. By 2069, we might be looking at a climate that’s more similar in the Boundary Waters to what is right now in Des Moines, Iowa. And we can go to various parts of the state and see the same possible magnitude of change.

Why should the general public care?

Many of the places that Minnesotans care deeply about—our state parks, our northern forests, our lakes—are poised to be very different in the next few decades. There are going to be species that will be more able to capitalize on these rapid climate changes than others, and some of those species are perhaps weedier and more aggressive in their growth and spread. So, what we could lose are a lot of the special plants and animals that many people find quite wonderful in the state, and that are unique to this part of the world.

For example?

Well, our state flower, the [showy] lady’s slipper. Our slow-moving, ant-dispersed plants, and many species that are moved by anything other than wind. Most of our plants in Minnesota are not wind-dispersed, so we expect that it’s going to be too slow of a transition. With regard to other organisms like animals, some of the landscape they need to traverse as they make their way north is not going to be easy for them to move across. It’s going to be bisected by landscape that’s not very suitable, like roads in the Twin Cities or farm fields. That would be particularly true for organisms that move on the ground, rather than fly, like amphibians.

Where do we go from here?

This year and going forward, we’ll have strategy sessions where we try to make sure this information is in the hands of policymakers and develop strategies that allow us to adapt between now and the next 70 years. The good news in Minnesota is we have a lot of talented biologists sitting in state and federal agencies and in government, and a high level of interest here at the University and other universities around the state. I think, as a team, we can begin to come up with ideas and a way forward. And if we do, we’ll be leading the way, because this is something that few people have figured out how to manage around the world.

As the election approaches, do you have any advice for voters?

The campaigns have not at all been focused on the environment. Even back in 1988, there was a clear focus on the environment, even though we had similar economic and foreign policy issues at play. I think it’s important to begin to press candidates for their interest and commitment, and the extent to which they will help support all of the activities that we’re going to need to push ahead.


How to Deal

Minnesota’s biodiversity is under fire. The experts weigh in on how to react.

Throughout our planet’s history and its many ice age cycles, native species have migrated without going extinct. Why is it a problem now? For starters, the magnitude of climate change we expect to see in the next few decades occurred in the past over a 2,000- to 3,000-year period. Factor in today’s fragmented landscape, declining habitat, increase of storms, droughts and fires—not to mention invasive species—and we’ve got a full-grown Biodiversity Bear on our hands. During a recent conference at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, researchers threshed out current and potential strategies for tackling this complex issue. The following are some of their finer points.

Lee Frelich
Forest Ecologist, University of Minnesota

“There are a lot of species we don’t know anything about and we need to remedy that quickly. For most species of Minnesota’s native plants, we don’t even know how to germinate the seed. … I would start doing experiments now that are not in natural areas or wilderness areas. Just take some industrial forests or abandoned farm fields and do transplant experiments and see how things do. So, if we decide we need to bring a new species into the Boundary Waters, for example, we would know how to do it.”


Carter Johnson
Wetland Scientist, South Dakota State University

“The Prairie Pothole region is known as the ‘duck factory,’ since it produces, on average, about 70 percent of the ducks in North America. And it doesn’t take but a few degrees Celsius to shift the most productive area in this region several hundred kilometers. Colleagues of mine have estimated that if we have just a 3- to 4-degree Celsius rise in temperature, it would cut the waterfowl population in half. … Minnesota could play a key role in bringing greater geographic resilience to the Prairie Pothole Region by restoring wetlands and grasslands.”


George Jacobson
Paleoecologist, University of Maine

“One way to think about setting up conservation land and land for ecological reserve is to choose areas that have high physical diversity—preferably large areas—so that the diversity over time can remain high, even though the biological assemblages on those landscapes are changing. … So, if we take a slightly longer time perspective, areas that may not seem like much now because of some recent land use history could actually be very special. With the rather short life cycle of many of the plants, there can be many generations of vegetation in just a few decades.”


Malcolm Hunter
Conservation Biologist, University of Maine

“Despite the success of Johnny Appleseed, the overall track record of moving species is not good. Roughly half of the projects that have attempted to move an endangered species from one place to another have failed. I think there will be places where it will make sense to do this rather than to sit back and watch a species go extinct. But before we start thinking about elaborate projects like assisted colonization, we need to deal with the problems we’re facing here and now…like overgrazing by white-tailed deer. ‘Adaptive management’ is the term that conservationists use: Whatever we decide to do, let’s take a diverse, thoughtful approach to it.”