Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge Makes Nation's Most Endangered Refuges List

Printer-friendly version

Dire Threat of Global Warming Jeopardizes Refuge's Future

(10/05/2006) - Washington, D.C. -- Coral species protected by the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) may become extinct over the next century due to the effects of global warming, according to a new report released today by Defenders of Wildlife.

Hawaiian Islands NWR is one of 10 refuges profiled in Refuges at Risk: The Threat of Global Warming, America's Ten Most Endangered National Wildlife Refuges 2006, released in advance of National Wildlife Refuge Week, October 8-14.

The Hawaiian Islands NWR protects a chain of islands, reefs and atolls extending 1,200 nautical miles from the main Hawaiian Islands. The refuge is home to more than 7,000 species of coral, algae, mollusks, fish and crustaceans. The endangered Hawaiian monk seal makes its way through the refuge's waters and millions of seabirds fill its sky. President Bush recently declared the area a national monument. Despite all this attention, it faces an immediate threat from global warming.

"Scientist believe if this warming trend continues, many species of coral will go extinct," declared Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. "What's more, one island near the refuge has already been claimed by shifting sea currents and intense storms. The effects of global warming are already harming this refuge. We haven't a moment to waste."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency with stewardship of the largest number of coral reefs in the U.S. According to scientific data, coral species are extremely vulnerable to global warming because they require consistent ranges in water temperature and water chemistry. Rising sea surface temperatures stress the symbiotic relationship corals have with tiny algae. Without these algae, corals die and appear "bleached." Two coral species in the Caribbean Sea were recently added to the endangered species list, with global warming identified as one of the threats to the species' survival.

The changing climate poses a huge challenge for those in charge of managing the refuge system. Defenders' report offers a two-pronged approach to dealing with the impacts of these changes including steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and initiatives to help plan for the changes global warming will inevitably bring to these vital areas.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with preserving and protecting the refuge system and needs to take immediate steps to deal with the damage caused by global warming," declared Schlickeisen. "By implementing more energy efficient practices, expanding partnerships, exploring new initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases and developing comprehensive plans that address global warming, the Service and our refuge system will be better prepared to meet the challenges ahead."

The report specifically suggests the Service consider the effects of global warming-related impacts such as rising sea levels, habitat shifts and the increasing intensity of hurricanes and other weather patterns.

The National Wildlife Refuge System contains 545 refuges and covers nearly 100 million acres in all 50 states and five territories, providing some of this nation's most spectacular landscapes and supporting an amazing variety of wildlife -- from migratory birds to bighorn sheep, ocelots and caribou -- as well as many endangered and threatened species. Almost 40 million people visit refuges each year to view wildlife and enjoy outdoor experiences.

Defenders of Wildlife works with federal, tribal, state and local agencies, private organizations and landowners to protect America's national wildlife refuges. The goal of the Refuges at Risk report is to highlight the threats facing the wildlife refuge system in order to build public support for saving wildlife by safeguarding and nourishing the places where they live.

Top 10 Refuges At Risk of Global Warming
(in alphabetical order)

Alligator River NWR, NC -- Home to endangered red wolves, the low-lying nature of the refuge constitutes its greatest vulnerability to global warming. The rise in sea level that is expected in the next century from global warming would inundate much of the refuge.

Aransas NWR, TX -- The refuge protects the world's only wild population of endangered whooping cranes. Since the refuge is composed of low-lying coastal land with shallow estuarine marshes, the predicted rise in sea level from global warming would flood the marsh, erode beaches and possibly increase the salinity of rivers and groundwater.

Arctic NWR, AK -- The largest refuge in the country, the Arctic refuge is the most important onshore denning area for polar bears in the United States. Over the past century, the average temperature of the Arctic has increased by 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Sea ice is melting and permafrost is thawing, interfering with the migration of wildlife.

Chincoteague NWR, VA -- While this barrier island has always experienced slow geologic change from ocean currents and weather, the pace of change is quickening due to global warming. If sea levels rise rapidly as predicted, wildlife habitat, as well as roads and facilities, on the refuge will be overwhelmed.

Devil Lakes Wetland Management District, ND -- A waterfowl haven, this refuge is threatened by a projected increase in the frequency and severity of droughts due to global warming. The number of breeding ducks in the prairie pothole region could be cut in half.

Hawaiian Islands NWR, HI -- Warmer sea temperatures, shifting currents, rising sea levels and sinking habitat are harming wildlife such as monk seals, seabirds and coral on this remote island chain. Scientists believe if this warming trend continues, many species of coral will go extinct.

Kenai NWR, AK -- Known as "Little Alaska," this refuge is threatened by retreating glaciers, frequent forest fires, dry lakebeds and loss of lush wildlife habitat caused by global warming. Wetlands and ponds are drying up and lake levels are dropping. Invasive beetles, spurred by warmer temperatures, have devastated forests, severely damaging wildlife habitat.

Merritt Island NWR, FL -- This gateway to the Kennedy Space Center is also home to 17 endangered and threatened species. As sea levels rise, this refuge's marshlands and a portion of its uplands will be inundated. Moreover, a higher water temperature contributes to an increase in toxic algal blooms which kill manatees and other sea life.

Oregon Islands NWR, OR -- Just last year a radically different weather pattern during the breeding season of 1.2 million seabirds disrupted offshore currents and damaged the food chain, resulting in the largest ever die-off of the common murre, the refuge's most populous seabird resident. Similar events are expected in the future, rippling through the food chain.

Silvio O. Conte NWR, MA -- Projected rises in global temperatures of 2 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit may change the very nature of this refuge as well as the New England countryside. With projections that tree species will likely shift north by 200 miles, some wildlife species may not be able to adapt or migrate with the forest habitat. Earlier snow melts will lead to reduced stream flows and lowered oxygen levels by late summer, threatening the endangered shortnose sturgeon.

###

Defenders of Wildlife is recognized as one of the nation's most progressive advocates for wildlife and its habitat. With more than 500,000 members and supporters, Defenders of Wildlife is an effective leader on endangered species issues.

###

Contact(s):

Deborah Bagocius, (202) 772-0239

You may also be interested in:

Fact Sheet
Peregrine falcons are the fastest-flying birds in the world – they are able to dive at 200 miles per hour.
Fact Sheet
Grazing animals distantly related to elephants, Florida manatees play an important role in influencing the health of the waters they call home.
Where We Work
Alaska remains one of the last pristine wilderness areas in the country. Defenders of Wildlife is committed to keeping it that way.