What’s stressing Wisconsin’s wildlife?

Wisconsin is world-renowned for its diversity of wildlife. Our outdoor recreation and tourism economy, which is vital to rural communities, depends on access to this diversity of species. To Tribal Nations that live within our state boundaries, wildlife and subsistence hunting and gathering are essential to their spiritual, cultural, and physical well-being.

The recently published report from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) shows that warmer winters, less snow, and new pests are stressing iconic Wisconsin species. The last two decades have been the warmest on record in Wisconsin and the past decade has been the wettest.

A snowshoe hare blends in with its snowy surroundings within a forest.
Snowshoe hare. Photo by Taylor Peltier/Pauli Lab, UW-Madison

Climate change is leading to earlier springs, milder winters, and delayed falls. Many species are shifting their historic ranges and migration patterns in response to these chang-es. Not all species are able to adapt, however, leading to a mismatch between habitats and the migratory species that depend on them. Reducing barriers to wildlife movement and creating resilient habitat spaces will be key for wildlife species as they try to adjust to climate change.

Impacts to a few keystone species illustrate how a warming climate is stressing Wisconsin wildlife. Ruffed grouse and snowshoe hares that depend on a snow-covered landscape to survive Wisconsin winters are increasingly at-risk as winters warm and the period of snow cover shortens. Warmer air and water temperatures, along with extreme fluctuations in lake levels, have disrupted loon re-production by changing the availability of nesting habitat and increasing the risk of black fly outbreaks during the breeding season. Warmer waters, extreme rains, and rapid lake level fluctuations are impacting wild rice beds that are important to Ojibwe tribes in Wisconsin and the wildlife species that use them.

But there is hope. The WICCI Wildlife Working Group recommends activities to help wildlife as the climate continues to warm, including adjusting harvest regulations for climate-vulnerable species. There is hope for the future, but it’s up to us.

This article is part of a series highlighting the contribution from each WICCI Working Group for the 2021 WICCI Assessment Report.