Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
Admissions Alumni Giving

A Roadmap for Species Protection
In a Warming World

Mojave Desert Tortoise
Phillip Adams , USGS
Deploying solar power plants in deserts seems like an obvious way to enjoy the environmental boons of renewable energy. Consider, for instance, California-based BrightSource Energy, which in 2010 began building a giant array of mirrors and steam-driven “power towers” in the Ivanpah Valley in the eastern Mojave desert. When completed sometime next year it will be the largest solar-thermal power plant in the world, able to produce enough electricity to power 140,000 homes.
 
By displacing fossil fuels, the Ivanpah Valley facility also will avoid 400,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide emissions, a feat comparable to taking 70,000 cars off the road. And it’s being built in what might intuitively seem like a perfect spot, on an expanse of sunny, non-arable desert already owned by the people of the United States, land not economically useful in any apparent way. 
 
But the push to build the giant solar farm, and a scattering of others like it in the American West, turned out to be fraught with controversy. Paradoxically, the conflicts over these environmentally beneficial renewable-energy power plants have come over the potential environmental damage they can cause particularly to imperiled species like the Mojave desert tortoise, which is listed as a threatened species. In 2010, BrightSource got federal and state permission to build the plant, but only after agreeing to spend more than $50 million on desert tortoise protection, and some environmentalists remain dismayed that it’s being built on that site at all. 
 
Some of the most powerful national environmental groups were also willing to sign off on that project, reasoning that the pluses outweighed the minuses. But in April, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Defenders of Wildlife sued the U.S. government to stop another. The groups are arguing that the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) should never have approved the so-called Calico solar project in the Mohave’s Pisgah valley at all. “The Pisgah Valley is just too critical for desert tortoise recovery and for a whole suite of important desert species like Golden Eagles,” says Sierra Club senior representative Barbara Boyle. “We need to build renewable energy, but we can find much better places that don’t harm important wildlife and habitat.”
 
According to natural resources consultant Will Singleton, conflicts over large solar projects on public lands have become “the poster child” for problems that better, advance land-use planning, based on detailed data, could have helped avoid.  
 
In 2011, Singleton’s Denver-based firm Singleton Strategies teamed up with Oswald (“Os”) Schmitz, Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology at F&ES, to tackle a looming and related conflict: how to more effectively plan for projects, whether large solar farms or shopping malls or highways, in the context of the even more complex threats posed to species and ecosystems from climate change.
 
“It’s turned out to be difficult to know where not to put these projects,” says Singleton of the solar developments. “The Department of Interior hears from industry that they’ve found sites in the desert that are perfect for solar power and are not important for biodiversity. And then later they hear from scientists and environmental groups that these areas could actually be very valuable for biodiversity.”
It’s turned out to be difficult to know where not to put these projects
— Will Singleton
He adds, “It’s pretty obvious that when you start adding climate change to the mix, we’re going to be asking resource managers to figure out where to locate projects based on multiple ways of thinking about how to protect habitat.”
 
In the past, resource managers and the scientists who provide them with data and models could at least rely on some stability in ecosystems. But if nations continue to avoid dealing with climate change, resource managers could be left grappling with how to protect species and their habitats under not only today’s warming climate, but under conditions that could bring major shifts in vegetation and geographic ranges of species, patterns of rainfall and drought, more frequent fires, rising sea levels and more.
 
“Parks and protected areas are not necessarily going to be sufficient anymore,” says Schmitz. “Climate change will cause species to reshuffle across the landscape as they try to move to more suitable conditions.”
 
But how to effectively plan for that? What happens if, say, rising seas flood today’s coastal foraging zones for shorebirds? Will new areas to forage appear, and where? If average temperatures rise on a forested landscape, will there still be suitable range for a mammal or amphibian in cooler climates to the north or further up a mountain, and are there suitable corridors for the species to move there? How to plan for biodiversity as the human population continues to grow, and to build highways, houses, factories and other structures (including even environmentally beneficial structures, like wind or solar farms) on lands that could turn out to be critical to a species’ survival needs if the world continues to warm?
 
To be sure, state and federal agencies, environmental groups and academic labs have been aware of these daunting questions. According to Schmitz, an array of federal and state agencies and other groups have been making attempts to gather data and shape them into models aimed at improving knowledge of how species and ecosystems might respond in a warming world.
 
The problem, says Schmitz, is that the approaches to modeling were inconsistent and the results piecemeal. Researchers and modelers were generating volumes of data. “But it was turning into a Tower of Babel,” he says. There was no consistent vision of how models and the planning for climate change that proceeded out of them should be fashioned.
 
In 2011, Schmitz and Singleton convened a group of prominent conservation biologists, scientists who specialize in ecosystem modeling and policymakers from a wide range of agencies, universities and independent reach groups for a series of meetings at Yale. Over the early months of that year, this science panel developed a sort of roadmap, the “Yale Framework,” aimed outlining such a vision. 

The framework is intentionally pared down to provide scientists and resource managers with the most critical building blocks to understanding the needs of species and ecosystems in the face of changing climate. It recognizes, first, that biodiversity must be analyzed and protected across multiple scales.
 
“Too often in the past we’ve tended to look at one species at a time,” says Schmitz. “If we’re going to need to find ways for a carnivore to move, we need to think about how its prey is going to move, and so on. The Framework is designed to help us think about how ecosystems as a whole can move.”
The Framework is designed to help us think about how ecosystems as a whole can move
— Os Schmitz
The current working draft of the framework is organized as a two-axis grid. The three items on the first axis indicate that biodiversity must be analyzed and protected at the species level, but also the ecosystem level and at a still-broader level: a larger landscape made up of multiple ecosystems. 
 
On a second axis, the draft framework provides a list of key factors that resource managers might want to assess across some or all of those interlinked spatial scales. An analysis might begin with an assessment of the current state of species and ecosystems and then move on to modeling future conditions. With that knowledge in hand, resource managers might refine models to help predict where species find more suitable habitat if a changing climate makes existing habitat unsuitable. 
 
A model might then be further refined to show where corridors exist for movement to a new habitat or where new corridors might be created. Where species cannot move, can some areas within existing protected areas still provide a form of refuge? Are there essential landscape features—soil, geology, streams—that could be especially critical to preserving some forms of biodiversity?
 
According to Schmitz, a key goal in deploying the Framework is “to help head off conflicts through thoughtful land use planning.”
 
“If we can think about how landscapes can be connected to others that will allow species to move, policymakers might find that it’s better to protect certain parcels of land now before there are conflicts with development,” he adds. “Think of those spring peepers we love to hear. Maybe things are getting really difficult in the southern part of their range, but conditions have become more favorable to the north. Could a future shopping mall end up on a site that the species would need as a steppingstone? The point isn’t to preclude development that addresses human needs, but to be able to develop in a smart way. Maybe it makes more sense to make plans today so that mall will end up in a better spot.”
 
Singleton points out that the framework can help shed light not only on protecting biodiversity in parks, national forests or other public lands, but also help inform groups like the Nature Conservancy and Open Space Institute that acquire critical habitats on private land (of particular importance in the eastern United States where public lands are far more scarce than in the West.) “You can use private capital to acquire land, but you’d want to know if it will continue to be of importance. You could use the framework to help prioritize conservation purchases based on whether those habitats will serve your purposes in the future,” he says.
 
The science panel’s efforts were funded by the Doris Duke, Kresge and Wilberforce Foundations. These funders have also sponsored a series of initial pilot projects aimed at refining the framework by testing it in modeling and planning efforts. One project, for example, by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory, was aimed at evaluating how to indentify habitats important for protecting biodiversity in the face of future rising sea levels in that state. Another project will analyze a range of issues related to the survival of two species of carnivores, the fisher and the martin, in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. That included mapping areas that could provide climate stability and thereby serve as “refugia” for these predators, areas that might need to be managed to reduce threats such as wildfire, as well as ways to maintain connections between habitats to allow the species to shift their ranges if need be. Yet another, focused on federal lands overseen by the BLM, will evaluate how species could move to more suitable habitats across the transition zone (or “ecotone”) between the Mojave Desert and the adjacent Great Basin.

The projects are only preliminary attempts at deploying the framework. Still, says Schmitz, “some of them have already provided useful insights that could motivate conservation action.” As an example, he notes that the project in Florida has “helped identify where strategic investment in new conservation habitat should be made and how to connect current and future habitats so that species can migrate and adapt as sea levels rise.”
 
Similarly, the project on BLM lands in the Mojave and Great Basin has already begun to improve understanding of how “climate change will reshuffle species between these two desert landscapes.”
 
Meanwhile, the science panel has received what Singleton called “very preliminary” inquiries from such entities as the U.S. Department of the Interior and the President’s Council on Environmental Quality about how the framework could be used on a much larger scale, say, to tie together efforts of multiple agencies across entire regions, or nationally. “A planning tool scalable to a national level—that’s a potential use of the framework we hadn’t originally even considered.”
Share this page: