Global Warming A Threat To Waterfowl

Ducks Face Trifecta of Troubles

06-14-2005 // Christine Dorsey

WASHINGTON, DC -- Ducks, geese and other migratory waterfowl face substantial population declines during this century in North America from a warmer climate and shrinking wetlands habitat caused by global warming, according to scientific research presented in a new National Wildlife Federation report.

The Waterfowler's Guide to Global Warming reports that ducks and geese that use America's flyways face "a trifecta of troubles caused by global warming," says National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger, "including major loss of prime breeding grounds, a reduction of coastal winter habitat and disruptions in migration."

Already, in northern breeding habitats, where global warming has already gained a strong foothold, ducks and geese are responding by breeding earlier and expanding their ranges farther north, the report states.

"Global warming is setting up ducks and geese for a Pandora's box of problems that could devastate populations across the nation," Schweiger says.

"We must not allow global warming to take our nation's waterfowl legacy away from our children," Schweiger says. "Global warming poses a basic threat to our conservation tradition. It challenges our responsibility to be good stewards of the water, land and wildlife. I am confident that sportsmen will lead the way in overcoming this challenge."

The report, the first comprehensive look at how global warming's multiple effects threaten North American waterfowl, was issued jointly by the National Wildlife Federation and 27 of its affiliated state conservation organizations. It highlights the latest scientific research of how changes in climate already are affecting waterfowl and how changes in the coming decades will likely affect breeding, migration and population of ducks, geese and other waterfowl.

"We are looking at a possible trifecta of pressures all convening within a few decades," says Patty Glick, global warming specialist for the National Wildlife Federation and the report's author.

The report looks at how projected global warming could affect waterfowl in each of the four North American flyways: Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific.

One of the most startling findings is in research by top waterfowl experts in North America suggesting that global warming could reduce wetland habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region by up to 91 percent by 2080. This could result in a decline in duck breeding pairs of anywhere from 9 to 69 percent, the research shows. Species at particular risk include mallards, gadwall, blue-winged teal, northern pintails, canvasbacks, redheads and ruddy ducks.

According to Glick, "As the climate warms and evaporation and plant transpiration increase, many of these ponds are likely to dry up or be wet for shorter periods, making them less suitable habitat for breeding pairs and duck broods."

"Waterfowl are part of an American wildlife tradition that we cannot afford to lose," says George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, a co-sponsor of the report. "The millions of ducks, geese and cranes Americans love depend on the health of the Prairie Potholes as a breeding ground, and we could be leaving ducks high and dry by the end of the century."

The Prairie Pothole Region is dubbed "North America's Duck Factory" because it produces millions of ducks and geese annually, thanks to millions of shallow depressions and ponds that fill with water in spring, providing ideal breeding habitat.

Waterfowl also are facing the loss of up to 45 percent of the coastal wetlands they depend on in winter due to a possible 3 to 34-inch rise in average sea level by 2100, the report states. Especially vulnerable are the shallow wetlands of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. These regions provide important wintering habitat for diving ducks such as canvasbacks, redheads, ruddy ducks and scaup.

Finally, warmer fall and winter temperatures in northern regions may reduce seasonal ice cover, making it unnecessary for ducks and geese to fly as far south to find ice-free water and adequate food.

The report highlights the multiple challenges waterfowl throughout North America will likely face if global warming continues unabated. Among them, changes in inland precipitation patterns and a significant decline in average mountain snowpack are expected to affect the quality and quantity of water in many coastal marshes and estuaries along the Pacific Coast. Thawing permafrost and changes in the vegetation of boreal forests and tundra regions of Alaska and Canada also could affect important breeding habitat for a number of North America's waterfowl species.

"Even where changes associated with global warming alone might not cause problems, the combined effects from human activities such as oil and gas development, forestry, mining and global warming make it difficult for some waterfowl to adapt to a rapidly changing environment," says Glick. "Waterfowl face an up-hill battle."

Climate scientists point to carbon pollution as the primary culprit behind global warming. In the last 100 years, global temperature rose by an average of 1 degree Fahrenheit, but in places such as Alaska, the change has been more dramatic. The average temperature in Alaska has risen by 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century, and is beginning to cause problems associated with softening permafrost and erosion along the state's coastline.

Temperatures globally are projected to rise on average by between 2-10 degrees Fahrenheit in the coming decades, primarily because of carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels that is trapping heat from being released in the atmosphere. A 1-degree Fahrenheit rate of change in temperature in 100 years is faster than any time in recorded history.

The report includes a plan of action to reduce global warming pollution and help waterfowl and other wildlife adapt to the changes already occurring. Among the recommendations:

  • Uphold the Clean Water Act and Farm Bill wetlands protections and expand other programs that encourage protection and restoration of wetlands;
  • Develop wetland and waterfowl conservation strategies that account for the potential effects of global warming and reform floodplain and coastal management practices; and
  • Enact policies that limit the nation's global warming pollution, protect and enhance forests, grasslands, wetlands and other natural systems that absorb and store carbon; promote energy efficiency and accelerate deployment of renewable energy technologies.

Immediate Release: June 27, 2005

Contacts: Christine Dorsey - 202-797-6806,
Patty Glick - 206-285-8707,
Doug Inkley - 703-438-6460,
George Meyer - Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, 608-516-5545

Related Resources
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    Waterfowler's Guide Executive Summary (pdf)

    For nearly a century, waterfowl conservation has been a priority for North America’s citizens, leading to the development of numerous policies and programs to restore and protect waterfowl species and their habitat.

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  • Supporting Document
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  • Supporting Document
    Minnesota Fact Sheet (pdf)

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  • Supporting Document
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