University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Feature

Wild Times

As our planet warms, animals will need human help to adapt and cope. That's where Olivia LeDee and the Midwest Climate Adaption Science Center play a role.

photo by shelly mosman

It's the first week of December—but walking through the U of M campus, you’d think it was October. The air is warm enough for only a sweater. Dry leaves blow across lawns that have only recently lost their summer sheen. And snow? There isn’t any.

That lack of snow is top of mind for the people working in the Learning and Environmental Sciences building on Buford Avenue in St. Paul, where the Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center (MW CASC) is located. It's a federally funded consortium of research-focused academic, tribal, and nonprofit partners who work collaboratively with the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

MW CASC pairs scientists with cultural resource managers to help fish and wildlife adapt to the changing climate in an eight-state region of the Midwest. The U of M is the center’s host institution.

“The loss of winter really affects wildlife,” says Olivia LeDee (M.S. ’05, Ph.D. ’08), MW CASC’s regional administrator, gesturing outside her window. “That includes everything from invasive species that are no longer limited by cold temperatures to [the emergence of] false springs—where it’s cold, then it’s warm, then it’s cold again, which throws off the signaling patterns for plants and animals.” She cites a study sponsored by MW CASC, which shows that less snow unfavorably impacts the ways that white animals, such as the snowshoe hare, blend into the landscape. It’s a phenomenon known as “camouflage mismatch.”

"If you're working in coastlines and not thinking about sea level rise, you're missing what's going to really affect conservation."
Olivia LeDee

LeDee’s passion for animals and wildlife started when she was growing up in south Louisiana. Her mother was a middle school science teacher who encouraged her daughter to enter science fairs and participate in 4-H. “Lots of pets. Lots of time outside,” she says, smiling. When she was 15, she won the state environmental issues resolution contest for a project that looked at hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) in the Gulf of Mexico.

Her interest in wildlife took hold as an undergraduate at Loyola University New Orleans, where she majored in biology. A summer research experience in the Rocky Mountains, looking at the behavioral responses of forest birds to hikers, bikers, and dogs on trails, was a lightbulb moment for LeDee, who’d previously focused her research on plant life. She was drawn to the complexity of something she’d previously taken for granted.

After graduation, LeDee enrolled in graduate school at the U of M. During her master’s degree, she studied the piping plover, a threatened shorebird that winters on the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico. That research led to a Ph.D. in conservation biology. Her dissertation focused on the piping plovers’ non-breeding habitats—most research had been about breeding grounds—along coastlines that have changed dramatically over the years. “If you have a million people going to a beach, and it’s the one beach that this bird goes to and they’re constantly disturbed, it is draining [the bird’s] energy,” she explains.

A turning point for LeDee’s research occurred when she realized that the human impact on these wintering grounds wasn’t the entire picture. “I realized that if you’re working in coastlines and not thinking about sea level rise, you’re sort of missing what’s going to really affect conservation.”

After graduation, LeDee worked with wildlife vulnerability assessments at the University of Wisconsin and then at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The experience helped her understand that managing wildlife under climate change needed to be integral to her work.

ADAPTATION IN ACTION

Researchers from the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Research Station and Midwest CASC worked together to provide information for climate-informed decision-making by wildlife and habitat managers. Here are some of their recommendations.

- Translocate southern black bears to northern areas, because these individuals may be physiologically adapted to shorter periods of inactivity during the winter.
- Establish a population of elk in their historic range in northeastern Minnesota.
- Construct amphibian tunnels to permit movement across roads.
- Connect mature northern or boreal forest habitats that are oriented north to south across the landscape to facilitate northward migration of northern flying squirrels.
- Provide technical assistance for private landowners to create habitat for quail and other grassland birds.
- Identify and improve anticipated future stopover or wintering habitat for migratory birds.
- Move eastern tiger salamanders from populations in south-central Minnesota to populations in north-central Minnesota, where conditions may be more suitable as the prairie-forest border shifts to the northeast.
- Capture bighorn sheep from a thriving population and reintroduce them into areas that are expected to be suitable habitat.
- Restore large grazers such as bison in order to sustain savanna and grassland habitats.
- Maintain non-native flowering species that sustain native insects, such as non-native milkweed being used by monarch butterflies.
- Vaccinate vulnerable individuals or populations against disease, such as vaccinating prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets against the plague bacterium.
- Capture sharp-tailed grouse from a large, stable population in northern Minnesota and release them into a smaller existing population in northern Wisconsin.
- Install artificial nests or denning sites, such as nest boxes for northern flying squirrels or wood ducks on unoccupied lakes.
- Provide supplemental food to improve survival for songbirds in winter.
- Increase harvest of white-tailed deer in moose habitat areas to reduce the transmission of brainworm from deer to moose.
- Limit recreational trail access to areas that might be critical for nesting birds.
- Restrict dog access on beaches to reduce disturbance and stress to beach-nesting birds.
- Plant nutrient-dense native grass species and seed sources as winter food sources for threatened grassland bird species such as greater prairie chickens.

In 2020, Congress appropriated funds to create a Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center serving eight Midwestern states; LeDee helped champion and launch the effort. In 2021, in a competitive process MW CASC established the U of M as the organization’s host institution. The center funds graduate and postdoctoral students’ research and collaborates with other climate adaptation initiatives on the Twin Cities campus, including the U of M Climate Adaptation Partnership (MCAP). That group conducts specific climate and adaptation research across Minnesota and trains the next generation of adaptation professionals.

“This isn’t science that takes place behind closed doors. This is science and research that is engaged with communities and with very real and applied problems,” says Hugh Ratcliffe (M.S. '21), a climate adaptation scientist at MW CASC. “We focus on adaptation, not mitigation, because we’re faced with the reality of what’s happening. We’re really wading into a lot of unknown territory when it comes to climate change and the natural and built world and how that will impact it.” He adds that MW CASC is helping connect professionals and expertise and break down barriers and academic silos that prevent collaboration. “It’s helping to connect a lot of the dots to move forward on some of that important intellectual innovation,” Ratcliffe says.

In addition to a changing winter’s impact on wildlife, Minnesota is also increasingly vulnerable to heavy rainfall and flooding—which in turn increases sedimentation in streams and rivers. That’s a problem because sediment can clog fish gills, reduce their resistance to disease, lower growth rates, and affect fish larvae and egg development, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

To address these types of challenges, MW CASC developed a tool called the Wildlife Adaptation Menu, which offers options to support wildlife as they adapt to a changing climate. The menu offers wildlife managers more than 100 options, from trapping and removing nest predators in turtle recovery areas to restoring wild rice to benefit waterfowl populations. LeDee also coauthored the recently published Midwest chapter of the Fifth National Climate Assessment, which analyzes trends in climate and global change—both human-induced and natural—for Congress and the President.

Which is not to suggest that MW CASC’s work is delivered from on high. “We talk to resource managers,” says LeDee. “It’s really important that our work is responsive to them, and that it informs near-term decisions so that our conservation investments are best spent for the long term.”


If you liked this story, Minnesota Alumni magazine publishes four times a year highlighting U of M alumni and University activities. The magazine is a benefit of being a Alumni Association member. Join here to receive a printed copy at home.

Read More