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Making The Nature Scene: Warmer, wetter Wisconsin

What global warming means for the wildlife and outdoorsfolks of America’s Dairyland.

A snowshoe hare with its fur in seasonal transition. Hares are threatened by less snow and shorter winters, which makes them more visible to predators. Photo by D. Sikes. Illustrated frame by Maggie Denman.

In Making The Nature Scene, Tone Madison explores the splendor of the outdoors in the Madison area (and beyond), and encourages Madisonians to think more deeply about their natural and built surroundings.

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In October, daffodils and roses bloomed for the second time this year. It was simultaneously gorgeous and eerie. A few weeks later, I browsed skis and snowshoes at REI, wondering if it would snow enough to use them. Relatively warmer weather takes the edge off of Seasonal Affective Disorder and the upcoming Pandemic Winter II: The Vaccening. But it just ain’t right. Global warming (yes, I said it!) is a fact that we’re facing more each day.

In Wisconsin, global warming equates to wetter and warmer weather, shorter and milder winters, and more variability from droughts to floods. In fact, the wettest Wisconsin decade in 10 years quickly switched to drought conditions in spring 2021. Last month, world leaders and many an energy lobbyist met to discuss climate change and how to approach it. Climate change strategies are on Wisconsin’s agenda as well. Before the end of the year, the Nelson Institute’s Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) is due to update its summer report to the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, which makes recommendations for statewide policies and practices. Fortunately, Governor Tony Evers accepts climate reality, much unlike worn-out Big Mouth Billy Bass Scott Walker, whose administration scrubbed “climate change” from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) websites in 2016. The site now says that Wisco winter temps will rise 5-11 degrees by 2050, leaving milder winters about a month shorter and minus about 14 inches of snow.

Our furry neighbors are already taking note.

When famed conservationist Aldo Leopold surveyed Wisconsin wildlife in the 1930s, snowshoe hares hopped around the top two-thirds of the state. But warmer temperatures have pushed them further north over the last 30 years.

“Because snow conditions are changing, because winter is simply becoming shorter and shorter, we’re seeing more of those white snowshoe hares mismatch with their own brown background,” says Jon Pauli, a Wildlife Ecology professor at UW-Madison. This change has rippled through the ecosystem.

The hares’ predators are dining more on porcupines, which means fewer of these walking prickly boys (not to be confused with the legless cacti) out and about. Young porcupines, called porcupettes, are born without quills and at risk of becoming a toothier creature’s meal. So the porcupine population decreases, shifting the ecosystem again.

“Hopefully, climate change will be a moment in history,” Pauli says. “And if we can prevent these species from going extinct in the near- and mid-term, that they would then be present and able to persist through this abrupt change in climate, and either adapt or simply persist when environmental context becomes more hospitable for them.”

He says it’s a fact of climate change that there will be winners and losers among species. But that doesn’t mean it’s futile to give those species a better chance at viability. 

Pauli works with federal, state and regional groups like the National Parks Service, Wisconsin DNR and the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe to maintain populations of climate-affected species. For instance, the snowshoe hare, by promoting thick forests that have elder and aspen stands where they can take shelter. The goal is to counterbalance the effects of predators on the easily visible rodentia.  

This tactic falls in line with resisting climate change, part of a newer ecosystem management framework called RAD: Resist-Accept-Direct. According to Jack Williams, a geography professor at the UW-Madison Center for Climatic Research, these are the three basic options dealing with climate change.

“These ecological changes are in the pipeline and we’re going to see more and more of that over the coming decades, whether it’s good or bad, who’s to say, but it’s going to be a lot of change,” Williams says.

Resisting helps species deal with the effects of climate change. One example is planting shade trees to protect coldwater habitats in the Driftless Region. Accepting means monitoring how climate change affects wildlife with little intervention and being ready to use a new strategy when the opportunity presents itself. 

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Lastly, directing those changes steers ecosystems towards preferable outcomes. For instance, models suggest that spruce and fir species, which rely on cold winters, will decline in areas like the Northwoods. Foresters can plant trees that can handle warmer, drier conditions. For recreational and timbering areas, “You’re going to have forests that are ready for the climates of the future. Foresters have to work on this 80-year crop rotation, in a sense, so they really have to be planning ahead.”

RAD isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s a proactive “framework for choosing what to save, what to let go and what to fight for, even knowing that we may lose that fight,” Williams says in an essay published in the journal Bioscience in November. “Helping species, ecosystems, and societies adapt to climate change is a worthy effort; it can be our generation’s gift to the future.”

Local trees like Madison’s oaks are also struggling in light of this summer’s drought and diseases like oak blight, says Paul Quinlan, the conservation resources supervisor for the City of Madison. 

“We’re seeing oak after oak, big giant trees, just dying. There’s not a whole lot we can do about it.” The city is replacing the trees and promoting biodiversity in oak woodlands. The goal is to make these natural communities more resilient by building in biodiversity. That way, if one species struggles because of weather in a bad year, other species can fill their niche and ward off invading non-native species. 


The City of Madison is introducing a southern variety of purple coneflower that can handle warmer, drier temperatures in conservation areas. Photo by James St. John.

In prairie restoration areas, the city is introducing warmer-climate varieties of plants like echinacea. They’re adding common echinacea, or purple coneflower, which is typically found further south in the country and thrives in warmer climates, to the pale purple coneflower that’s more prevalent in the Dane County area and further north.

“As the climate changes, we’re expecting Wisconsin will be more like Southern Illinois at some point,” Quinlan says. (Your writer, a native of that region, offers their condolences. What Madison considers a heat wave is everyday summer temperatures in Southern Illinois.) 

Natalie Chin, a chair for the WICCI Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Group that reports to the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, says there are new expectations all season long due to climate change. Hotter weather might mean more people going to the beach, but warmer water could also increase harmful algal blooms. More intense storms may leave trails closed due to impassibility from water, mud, and fallen trees and limbs. Those same storms can lead to high lake levels and damage infrastructure like marinas. Flooding can make rivers unsafe for kayaking, canoeing, and tubing. Without extreme cold in the winter, pests like ticks that spread disease might not die off, increasing risk to humans.

“If you’re a recreator, knowing what to do in case of an extreme storm and making sure you’re aware of what conditions are if you’re going out on the water for example. Some of that is not just climate change related, but it’s just being safe,” Chin says. 

It’s also important to think about the disproportionate impacts that climate change has on accessibility, Chin says. 

“If a trail gets closed, it’s maybe the only access point that someone with a disability can use to get to a certain place,” she says. “And some of these health impacts will affect people who are more vulnerable or have underlying conditions.”

There’s no pithy, tidy way to end this column. We can’t summon Captain Planet to fix global warming. All the turning off of the faucet while brushing our teeth and using less styrofoam we were instructed to do as children hasn’t panned out to saving the planet. As adults, homeowners can switch to solar and insulate their houses well. All of us can work with what’s coming, fight for corporate responsibility and tread as lightly as possible on Mother Earth. And use less plastic. As we’ve seen with COVID, humans tend to put off or deny things until they’re in our faces and physically threatening us. Here’s hoping our unimpeded ambition can amount to a livable world for future generations. We can do this. Will we?


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