Preparing for Climate Change

Oregon is a key study area because of its great diversity of habitats: rain forests, high deserts, alpine areas, fens, bogs, lakes, rivers and rich estuaries.

Steve Buttrick stands at his desk, surrounded by brightly-colored maps and stacks of raw data, clutching a coffee mug in need of a refill.

“Oregon has a lot to gain through active conservation and a lot to lose by not considering climate change in our conservation planning,” says Buttrick, Oregon's director of conservation science planning. “The challenges associated with climate change are huge and becoming more immediate. This requires a sea-change in thinking and strategy. Effective protection and management can’t just rely on where a species is today. We need to figure out where conditions will be right for it in the future.”

This type of work is referred to as "Conserving Nature's Stage." Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns will force many species to relocate in an effort to adapt. With climate change, natural ecological processes such as fire, wind and flooding will change or shift location. However, topographic features like soil, elevation and slope will remain the same.

Areas with combinations of these topographic features, or “land facets,” have high biodiversity, and the more combinations of these features the higher the biodiversity. By identifying, mapping and protecting these land facets, Buttrick hopes to ensure the protection of these diverse landscapes, even as species move with climate change.

 "We look for areas with a diversity of microclimates, or ranges of moisture and temperature, and a lack roads, development, etc. that allow species to move as the general climate changes,” Buttrick explains. “So, combining microclimate diversity with a landscape that allows species movement provides a metric that can be used to assess a site’s resilience."

Oregon and the Pacific Northwest in general is a key study area because of its great diversity of habitats: rain forests, high deserts, alpine areas, fens, bogs, lakes, rivers and rich estuaries. In Oregon, these habitats support 3,773 species of native vascular plants and vertebrates, placing Oregon 8th among all other states in biodiversity. Ten percent of these species are considered at risk.

Using this knowledge, The Nature Conservancy in Oregon has revised its portfolio of conservation areas across 23 million acres in the southeast corner of the state to ensure priority conservation sites not only contain a diversity of species and habitats, but also reflect the most resilient landscapes. Buttrick and his team have completed mapping land facets within 10 ecoregions covering Oregon and Idaho, most of Washington, northern California, western Montana and northern Nevada.

With generous support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the work being done by Buttrick and other scientists within The Nature Conservancy is helping identify the places needed to protect as much of Oregon’s current biodiversity as possible and to support additional species that will relocate to Oregon in the future.