‘We are hemorrhaging species’: The biodiversity crisis in New Hampshire

By: - October 26, 2021 3:55 am
A loon swims in a pond

A common loon swims in The Nature Conservancy’s Lime Pond Preserve in Columbia. (Jeff Lougee | The Nature Conservancy)

The number of species on the planet is decreasing – a process that is accelerating and leading to international concern among scientists that it could result in a collapse in biodiversity.

That was the topic of a massive United Nations conference attended by leaders from around the globe, which concluded earlier this month. Scientists are calling this an existential crisis that’s tied to changes brought about by a warming climate.

That global trend is happening in New Hampshire, too.  

“We know that we’re hemorrhaging species, and we know that we’re more importantly hemorrhaging habitat,” said Kurk Dorsey, an environmental historian at UNH whose research has focused on environmental diplomacy.  

The latest estimates, according to New Hampshire Fish and Game, put the state’s species count at around 500 vertebrates, which excludes invertebrates like clams, snails, insects, and crustaceans. There are 27 endangered species in New Hampshire, and 14 species that are threatened.

Biodiversity is important to humans’ survival and the Earth’s ability to sustain life, so it’s something that conservationists and environmentalists in the state are paying attention to, with efforts underway to conserve habitat. 

Birds are one animal that can be used as an indicator of environmental health, and a 2019 report found that in the past 50 years, North America has lost 3 billion birds.

A 2020 report by Pam Hunt for New Hampshire Audubon took stock of bird populations in New Hampshire. The report found that out of approximately 190 species of birds that breed in New Hampshire, 80 have populations that are diminishing. Sixty species are growing, while 30 are relatively stable. There wasn’t sufficient data to make a determination on the remaining 20 species.

“We know we’re messing things up, and we need to stop sooner rather than later,” she said.

Moose are one example of a cold-adapted species now having trouble as winters in New Hampshire are getting warmer. Hunt has also observed bird species moving farther north as temperatures warm. But information about how climate affects species over time is limited, Hunt said, since “we’ve only been studying potential effects of climate change for a decade or so or less.”

Lack of good data is one of the challenges to tracking biodiversity in the state. Hunt said there are certainly declines in the insect population, for instance, but the data on how much or which kind isn’t readily available. Part of what makes birds a good proxy for environmental health is that they are visible and more data is available. New Hampshire Fish and Game encourages residents to report sightings of amphibians and reptiles, for instance, because there is little background data that bears out concerns about their declining populations. The department also needs more information about snakes and turtles, like spotted, wood, common musk, and Blanding’s turtles, which are all under-reported, according to the Fish and Game website.  

And the data that we do have about species population goes back only 50 years. Beyond those numbers, there is anecdotal evidence dating back 100 years. To reach back even further, historians such as Dorsey can look at oral tradition to understand which species were here, as well as written accounts from European explorers. Those accounts describe an abundance of species.

“I think that can give us some snapshot of what it must have been like,” Dorsey said. “But the chance of ever bringing that back is zero.”

Dorsey lives in Durham, and even though there’s land set aside for conservation, it’s not close to what it was even 50 years ago.

Farms get turned into subdivisions, but it’s very rare for a subdivision to get turned back into a farm, Dorsey said. And land use is a big driver of how biodiversity changes over time because it determines what kinds of habitats are common and available. A hundred years ago, New Hampshire’s forests were still recovering from heavy deforestation that had cleared the way for agriculture in the state. Those open spaces supported much larger populations of grassland and shrubland birds, which are now in decline as much of that habitat has returned to forest. So a big question for conservationists and policymakers in the state is how far back to look when setting goals for healthy populations of particular species.

“One of the goals has to be simply to stop paving for a while until we figure out what to do,” Dorsey said. “We’re losing things to pavement; we’re never going to get those back in all likelihood.”

But, politically, that’s a challenge. “The voices for biodiversity are small by comparison to the voices in favor of paving,” Dorsey said. “Paving companies are pretty influential, and then you have the tax base that comes with paving places.”

Hunt and other environmentalists in the state say that a holistic approach to addressing this problem is better than singling out any individual species for protection. For Hunt, that means addressing the big underlying problems, whether climate change, pollution, urban sprawl, or outdoor cats that are decimating bird populations.

“If we can solve these sorts of bigger, underlying issues at a broader scale, that just raises all boats,” she said.

The Nature Conservancy is one organization that is trying to do that by identifying which habitats are a top priority for conservation because of the life they can sustain and where they are located. Through a project called the Resilient and Connected Lands Network, they have mapped all of the eastern United States to figure out places where biodiversity will be resilient to climate change. The maps also take into account animal mobility, and the project aims to create corridors to allow for species to move around rather than islands that would keep animals in place.

In New Hampshire, the organization recently completed a land protection project in Keene on Surry Mountain. They determined that the 1,324 acre preserve is “climate resilient,” and now that land is set aside and will not be developed. It’s home to black bears, bobcats, and fishers, and open for public use.

“We’re seeing accelerated loss of species. If we don’t change the path that we’re on, that’s only going to accelerate, and climate change is the gas on the fire,” said Jim O’Brien, the director of external affairs at The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire.

And while O’Brien said there’s a focus on terrestrial species, these changes are occurring in freshwater and saltwater ecosystems, too.

“Freshwater systems are heating up, which affects New Hampshire brook trout habitat because they’re a cold-water species,” he said.

The state’s approach to the problem is laid out in its 10-year Wildlife Action Plan, which came out in 2015. The plan lays out 117 actions, including monitoring, researching, and managing species and habitat, as well as protecting land, coordinating government agencies, and planning.

“It is only through a broad-based, all-hands-on-deck approach that the state will continue to protect and manage species and habitat that improve the quality of life and the economy in New Hampshire,” the plan states.

It was only in 2005 that the state started putting out these plans. And the state program that manages nongame and endangered wildlife got its start in 1988, so these efforts are a relatively recent addition to conservation in the state.

International efforts to protect migratory wildlife across borders stretch back much further, according to Dorsey, the historian. But he said that if history is any indicator, some skepticism is in order about whether the recent U.N. conference will produce meaningful progress.

It’s easy for countries to show up to a conference, he said. It’s harder to go home and put plans into action to make real change.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.