Climate Change Nebraska

Nebraska's Wildlife Already Feeling the Heat from Climate Change

A warmer earth is silencing the chorus of creepers, crawlers, swimmers and flyers who've inhabited the planet for millions of years

By: Carlee Koehler

Wildlife now live on the edge of urban communities like Lincoln, Neb. As habitats fragment, species either coexist with humans or are uprooted from their natural world. Photo by Brooke Talbott

As a graduate student in California, Jamilynn Poletto was part of a fish ambulance service of sorts.

 

Hotter weather from climate change increased water evaporation, turning flowing streams into shallow ponds. Suddenly, stranded sturgeon were in danger of overheating and at greater risk for disease, so Poletto and her colleagues rushed in with seins, nets and coolers to transport them to more hospitable waters.

 

Now a professor of fish physiology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Poletto sees evidence that what is happening in California is happening in Nebraska too.

 

“There are times when we are seeing temperature spikes in rivers and in reservoirs that are unheard of,” she said. “Temperatures rise and water levels in streams drop to the point where fish become trapped.”

 

California has suffered from years-long drought, raging wildfires and devastating mudslides. But in Nebraska, with no shrinking glaciers or rising seas, the shifts in the natural world from climate change are not always as easy to see. The pallid sturgeon, the northern redbellied dace, and the blacknose shiner Poletto worries about live underwater, out of sight.

Pallid sturgeon, a federally endangered species, are bottom feeding freshwater fish with a historical range spanning the entire Missouri River and into the Mississippi River. Photo by Platte River Recovery
Pallid sturgeon, a federally endangered species, are bottom feeding freshwater fish with a historical range spanning the entire Missouri River and into the Mississippi River. Photo by Platte River Recovery

But, as in California, more distressed and diseased fish is just one sign that Nebraska’s environment is shifting.

 

Bird migration patterns are changing, invasive species are pushing out native plants and wildlife are losing habitat.

ecosystem
Every species in an environment is connected either directly or through a few food chain links. Losing one piece of the system is detrimental to the functioning of the whole. Graphic by Brooks/Cole Thompson Learning

When an ecosystem changes, the losses tend to cascade. Eventually Nebraskans themselves may suffer in terms of fewer hunting, fishing and tourism opportunities. The state, which now boasts tallgrass prairie and Ponderosa pines, mountain lions and Salt Creek tiger beetles, sandhill cranes and Canada geese, may be unalterably changed in just a couple of generations by the stresses associated with climate change, according to wildlife biologists.

 

Nebraska has seven species endemic to the state, meaning at least 90% of the entire population exist only there. And of those seven endemic species, five of them are considered vulnerable to climate change.

 

“Climate changes at a rate that animals cannot evolve to or adapt to, because it’s happening so fast,” said Dennis Ferraro, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln conservation biologist and herpetologist. “They are resilient, but it’s only so much resilience they can have.”

Animals “are resilient, but it’s only so much resilience they can have."
UNL wildlife biologist Dennis Ferraro
1892 photograph of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer. Photo by Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
1892 photograph of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer. Photo by Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
Bison in Nebraska nearly met their demise in 1880 due to excessive hunting to meet the demand for leather during the Industrial Revolution. This 1874 image is of a hide yard in Dodge City, Kansas. Photo by Kansas Historical Society
Bison in Nebraska nearly met their demise in 1880 due to excessive hunting to meet the demand for leather during the Industrial Revolution. This 1874 image is of a hide yard in Dodge City, Kansas. Photo by Kansas Historical Society

Wildlife, of course, have lived on the margins in Nebraska for decades.

 

Nineteenth-century hunters tried to shoot as many buffalo as crossed their gunsights, bringing the once great herds almost to extinction. 

 

The farm plows that followed cut through thousands of acres of rich soil, turning under habitats for burrowing owls and black-footed ferrets. City expansion and urban sprawl sliced and diced habitats even further. 

 

Even so, the state with the most river miles among the Lower 48 supports more than 350 types of birds, tens of thousands of white-tailed and mule deer, and a rich variety of fish.

 

But ecosystems are already starting to shift under the stress of a warming planet.

 

A UNL study released in June 2019 said that ecosystems in the Great Plains have moved hundreds of miles north in the past half century, a consequence of climate change, land development and other human-related factors.

 

Wildfires, more frequent in a warming planet, have reduced the acreage of pines on the Pine Ridge to less than 100,000 acres from 250,000 in 1994, according to a 2014 UNL climate change report.

 

The Russian olive, an invasive species, is pushing out the cottonwoods in riparian forests, the UNL study said.  Woody eastern red cedars are encroaching on grasslands. The coarse conifers push out native species that prefer flat open habitat like swift foxes in the process.

 

“Every species, every plant, every insect, amphibian and mammal are an important integral part of the ecosystem,” Ferraro said. “We lose one, the integrity of the ecosystem falls.” ​

Invasive species like eastern red cedar thrive in dry heat and spread rapidly across grasslands, which suffocates natural landscapes, and forces wildlife to move. Species like swift fox will not live in an area with trees due to their need for open spaces to roam and watch for predators. Cedar-ridden Latta Lake has already been restored back to Sandhills. Photos by Platte Basin Timelapse
Invasive species like eastern red cedar thrive in dry heat and spread rapidly across grasslands— suffocating natural landscapes and forcing wildlife to move. Species like swift fox will not live in an area with trees due to their need for open spaces to roam and watch for predators. Cedar-ridden Latta Lake has already been restored back to sandhills. Courtesy of Platte Basin Timelapse
“Every species, every plant, every insect, amphibian and mammal are an important integral part of the ecosystem. We lose one, the integrity of the ecosystem falls.”
UNL wildlife biologist Dennis Ferraro
Grasshoppers are one of many species showing decline in populations partially due to dilution of nutrients in their food and to high levels of carbon dioxide. Photo by Carlee Koehler
Grasshoppers are one of many species showing decline in populations partially due to dilution of nutrients in their food and high levels of carbon dioxide. Photo by Carlee Koehler

Insects, for instance, time their emergence from winter to coincide with the sprouting of plants or other food sources. Pests like aphids can usually be kept in check with predators like the minute pirate bug.

 

But if spring starts too early, the balance is upset. More pests could survive to damage crops.

“You can get things out of sync pretty quickly,” said UNL entomology professor Tom Weissling, Ph.D.

 

A new study by researchers at The University of Oklahoma found grasshopper populations had fallen by 30% over two decades on a patch of preserved Kansas prairie. The study blamed the dilution of nutrients due to higher CO2 levels. Fewer grasshoppers may mean fewer pheasants, which eat the insects.

Greater concentrations of carbon dioxide levels also decrease cardenolides in milkweeds, with major consequences for the embattled monarch butterfly, Weissling said. The butterflies, which have suffered from severe population decline, are able to ingest and store the toxic steroid in their bodies as caterpillars, making them distasteful to predators and pathogens. As the insects continue to consume the milkweed plants with increased CO2 levels, they will not be getting the protection from cardenolides. 

  

The rapid pace of seasonal change is also confusing migratory birds like snow geese that pass-through Nebraska on the Central Flyway, said Mark Vrtiska, the waterfowl program manager with Nebraska Game and Parks. 

“As the days get longer [or] shorter, they’re going to be wanting to move south or north depending on what time of the year it is,” he said. 

Nebraska’s Platte River provides roost sites and nearby fields supply waste grain to nourish both sandhill cranes and the endangered whooping cranes during their stops in the state. Migration paths funnel through Nebraska where cranes rest and eat up before continuing north. Photo by the Crane Trust
Nebraska’s Platte River provides roost sites and nearby fields supply waste grain to nourish both sandhill cranes and the endangered whooping cranes during their stops in the state. Migration paths funnel through Nebraska where cranes rest and eat up before continuing north. Graphic by the Crane Trust

But if the day length no longer matches temperature, new chicks are in trouble. “What we’re seeing now is that they’re hatched, and the food’s not there,” Vrtiska said.


Whooping cranes migrate about 20 days earlier since the early 1940s, said Joel Jorgensen with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Jorgensen said the cranes are tough birds that may be able to adapt, but other bird varieties are likely to disappear from the state.

An Audubon Society report identified the red-headed woodpecker, the piping plover and long-billed curlew as “highly vulnerable” to a warming of 3 degrees Celsius. Even moderate warming is likely to reduce the habitat range for Canada geese, the brown thrasher and the golden eagle, the report said.

Red-headed woodpeckers are considered highly vulnerable to a warming of 3 degrees Celsius. Photo by Carlee Koehler
Red-headed woodpeckers are considered highly vulnerable to a warming of 3 degrees Celsius. Photo by Carlee Koehler

The U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment, which is written with the help of 13 federal agencies, predicted that warming temperatures and longer, more frequent droughts will reduce wetland density in the Prairie Pothole Region, which includes north central Nebraska, by as much as 25% by 2050.

 

Nine of Nebraska’s 12 federally endangered and threatened species use wetland areas, as do 19 of Nebraska’s 27 state-listed endangered and threatened species. Some familiar species include the river otter, bald eagle and massasauga rattlesnake.

Wetlands provide necessary habitat for the majority of Nebraska’s wildlife. Losing them means losing the species that rely on those ecosystems. Graphic by Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Guide to Nebraska’s Wetlands
The Northern Great Plains portion of the Prairie Pothole Region had significant changes in grassland land cover from 2006 to 2011, putting pressure on native birds. Graphic by the Fourth National Climate Assessment
From 2006 to 2011, The Northern Great Plains portion of the Prairie Pothole Region had significant changes in land cover from grassland, putting pressure on native birds. Chart by Fourth National Climate Assessment and adapted from Wright and Wimberly 2013
Wetlands like this one in the sandhills near Burwell are critical for Nebraska's wildlife to thrive. Photo taken in the summer of 2019 by Carlee Koehler
Wetlands like this one in the sandhills near Burwell are critical for Nebraska's wildlife to thrive. Photo taken in the summer of 2019 by Carlee Koehler

Sarah Nevison, a biologist at Nebraska Game and Parks, is concerned over the fate of the Salt Creek tiger beetle, one of the rarest insects on the planet. The beetles only live in the salt water marshes in northern Lancaster County that are a vestige of the time when Nebraska was an inland sea.

 

The marshes help reduce flooding risks and protect water sources. The tiger beetle, Nevison said, serves as an indicator species— signaling that declining populations can be an early sign of trouble.

“If you don’t hunt, if you don’t look at birds, if you don’t kayak, if you do none of that, you probably like clean water,” said Nevison. 

Of 80 Tier 1 species that Nebraska Game and Parks Commission analyzed, nearly half were considered to be vulnerable to climate change. Graphic by Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Natural Legacy Project
Of 80 Tier 1 species that Nebraska Game and Parks Commission analyzed, nearly half were considered to be vulnerable to climate change. Graphic by Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Natural Legacy Project

 Species that are less at risk will still suffer in a warmer world. 

 

“More than anything, the implications of climate change for Nebraska’s ecosystems should shake us from the complacency that our small network of public and private lands managed for the conservation of natural communities and wildlife will be sufficient to preserve these resources in the decades ahead,” the climate study stated.

 

Weather reports like in 2012, Nebraska’s hottest and driest year since 1895, could be the new average for years 2041 to 2070, according to UNL’s climate study.  Droughts are thought to increase the incidence of hemorrhagic disease, which is particularly dangerous to white-tailed deer. In 2012, at least 6,000 deer died from the disease in Nebraska. The deer harvest during the 2012 November gun season fell by 25-30%, according to the Game and Parks annual report

 

All of this is a threat to Nebraska’s bottom line.

 

Wildlife viewing brought in $722 million to Nebraska in 2016; hunting brought in more than $800 million; and fishing provided more than $300 million. 

white tail fawn
A fawn pauses before disappearing into the concealing sumac by Lake McConaughy. Photo by Carlee Koehler

As species within an ecosystem interact, so too do the threats. Climate change is expected to cause more severe storms, which could increase the farm pollution harmful to fish and other aquatic species into streams and rivers.

 

Development like dams, bridges and cities in turn may limit an animal’s ability to follow their shifting habitats.

 

Higher CO2 levels reduce the concentration of medicine in plants that insects and animals- even humans- use.

 

Invasive species introduced by human activity may tolerate warmer temperatures better than native plants.

 

Losing species means losing the colors and chorus they provide: the rattling bugle of the sandhill crane; the howl of a coyote; the rusty brown of tallgrass prairie swaying in the fall breeze.

 

“I think it has to do more with our role and our responsibility as stewards. You know, with great power comes great responsibility,” said Stephen Handler, a climate change specialist with the US Forest Service. “If we have a higher vision of what humanity is all about, I think part of that vision is caring for and protecting the place we call home.” 

“If we have a higher vision of what humanity is all about, I think part of that vision is caring for and protecting the place we call home.”
Climate Change Specialist Stephen Handler
deer
Twin fawns wander through their home in the sandhills of Nebraska. Photo by Carlee Koehler
cranes
Sandhill cranes take to the Nebraska skies every spring when they funnel through the state for a break on their migration path north. Photo by Carlee Koehler
turtle
A turtle checks its surroundings near the Calamus Resevoir in Nebraska's sandhills. Photo by Carlee Koehler
butterfly
This Bronze Copper was found in the mixedgrass prairie ecoregion of Nebraska. The butterfly's natural habitat includes wet or moist areas such as marshes and wetlands. Draining and filling in wetlands results in loss of habitat. Herbicides and pesticides pose another threat to this species and other important insects of Nebraska. Photo by Carlee Koehler

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