Elisabeth Hamin, Chair Robert Ryan, Member
This research project consists of two parts, a scientific analysis of potential impacts of climate change on a coastal wildlife refuge, Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, and its surrounding area and a summary of the response by stakeholders to the information. The refuge with headquarters in Westbrook, CT consists of eleven units that span 70 miles along the coast of CT and include habitats such as saltmarsh, tidal flats, deciduous upland, rocky island, and barrier reef. Projected impacts over a span of 100 years include a projected loss of one quarter to one third of the dry land (which composes 40 percent of the refuge), between 30 and 90 percent loss of brackish marsh and up to 90 percent loss of the saltmarsh under the worst case scenario. Implications of the impacts include shift in diversity of species, decreased buffer zones to minimize storm impacts to the surrounding community, loss of key habitats for threatened and endangered species, and potential loss of key migratory bird habitats. The second portion of the project consists of a presentation of the data at two workshops held on March 9, 2011 in Westbrook and Milford, CT and follow-up responses from those unable to attend. The outcome of the workshops and follow-up responses, include reactions from stakeholders, knowledge gained, and a summary of their key concerns, strategies for adaptation, and suggestions for continued partnership with each other and the refuge. Responses from stakeholders includes an acceptance of impacts from sea level rise and extreme weather events but a lack of knowledge about other impacts including habitat shifts, mismatched vegetation and breeding periods, and long term implications of loss of valuable wetlands and barrier reef habitats. No significant suggestions were made by stakeholders to improve communication. However, staff who participated recommended utilizing more information on economic impacts to communities as a result of habitat loss to foster greater support of the refuge. Additional research was recommended including a review of recently released studies on piping plovers and more information on the impact of climate change to human populations and how that will affect wildlife.
During the process of implementing this project there were many lessons learned that have broader implications for the refuge, the national wildlife refuge system, and for planners. Among these lessons is the importance for aggressive measures to be taken for land loss that is already being recorded as a result of climate change. In addition, it is important for the refuges to not plan or manage their refuges in isolation from the communities that surround them. Degradation of the habitats have long term consequences for the surrounding communities including a loss of buffer zones to protect against storm damage and a loss of ecological services that these habitats provide. Effective planning includes putting climate change impacts as a forefront issue that will serve to engage stakeholders in assisting to adapt to those impacts over the long term.