Conservation Road Maps for The Coming Decade

By Michelle Staudinger

Every 10 years, State natural resource agencies review the health (or decline) of their fish, wildlife, and associated habitats. They take a proactive approach, thinking carefully about the priorities, challenges, and actions they would like to accomplish during the coming decade. All of this planning and reflection is packaged into each State’s Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs), which serve as a roadmap for conservation, not only for the States themselves, but for academic research, conservation organizations, and many other groups interested in helping fish and wildlife sustain over the long-term.

Currently, States across the nation are working toward a target deadline of October 2015 for the revisions of their respective SWAPs.  To this end, SWAP coordinators have been challenged to incorporate climate change impacts and species responses into their current revisions. For many State managers and personnel, climate change is daunting – many have not received education or training on how to understand and interpret climate models and are overwhelmed by the immense amount of information that comes out on a daily basis in this rapidly advancing field.

A few years ago, I took a side-step from a purely fish-focused career path to a more broadly-based position with the DOI Northeast Climate Science Center (NE CSC). The NE CSC is a relatively new program, structured as a university – federal partnership comprised of scientists from the US Geological Survey and 7 university partners. One of the core missions of the NE CSC’s is to conduct stakeholder-driven climate science; we saw an opportunity to do a lot of good for fish and wildlife throughout our 22 State region by helping the States meet the challenge of integrating climate into their plans. To get started, we approached the States and asked them what climate science they wanted for their revisions. The response we got back was not what we expected. They essentially responded with: tell us what we need. As the lead author and coordinator for the report, this added a challenge to our task.

report cover_final_clean
Report cover of the Integrating Climate Change into Northeast and Midwest State Wildlife Action Plans.

Through an iterative process, we went back and forth with the States in the Northeast and Midwest with lists of what science and expertise we could provide. Ultimately, we jointly identified four guiding questions around which to synthesize content for a regional report:

1) How is the climate changing and projected to change across the Northeast and Midwest regions of the United States?

2) What are the relative vulnerabilities of fish and wildlife species and their habitats to climate change in the Northeast and Midwest?

3) How are threatened fish and wildlife likely to respond or adapt to climate change in the Northeast and Midwest?

4) What approaches, strategies, and actions could be taken to sustain fish, wildlife and their habitats in the short and long term across the Northeast and Midwest?

We started this process in the fall of 2014 thinking we had about a year to pull a report together. But by the time we developed a clear plan of action for the action plans, it was spring of 2015, and the States needed time to digest the information we were pulling together to guide their writing, go through their public review processes, and finalize revisions in time for the fall 2015 deadline. As you might image, many a night and weekend was dedicated by the NE CSC team to producing the 200+ page report. For me this was a nerve-racking process: would we finish in time? Would the report be enough? Would the report be relevant? Would the people we wrote it for use it? I have always considered my research to be “applied science,” and felt I knew my intended audience (fisheries scientists and fish-friendly academics, aka “fish squeezers”); but, the reality was that I was still producing science and leaving it up to others to do the work of figuring out how to make my results meet their needs once I put it out there. Generating this report was different; we had been asked to produce something that would directly inform the strategies and actions of a community of conservation leaders.

Staudinger et al 2015, Chapter 2, Figure 2
Figure 2.2 from Staudinger et al. 2015 showing the number of Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments conducted within in the Northeast and Midwest regions of the U.S. by major taxonomic group.


At the most recent American Fisheries Society meeting (August 16–20th, Portland OR), Dr. Pat Sullivan (Cornell University) gave a plenary talk speaking to this very issue of finding a balance between doing science that is basic and applied. His talk built on a growing voice from the science community to take the extra steps to connect with managers and decision makers to ensure that the science we are producing is more effective and actionable through co-production. Having now completed the report and recovered from the marathon of organizing, coordinating, writing, and dissemination, I can say that it was one of the most difficult publications I have ever worked on, but it was incredibly rewarding. I can see our science being put into practice just weeks after we finished. I receive messages from States saying how useful the information is – that they have entire chapters devoted to climate impacts on their State’s fish and wildlife that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. I can see our findings in their SWAP drafts.

I have a much deeper understanding for the process behind what the SWAPs are, and what they are meant to accomplish; in turn they have a much different meaning to me now that I have been an active participant in their production.


The full report, “Integrating Climate Change into Northeast and Midwest State Wildlife Action Plans”, can be downloaded at:

…And be sure to check out the webinar for more:

“Integrating Climate Change into the State Wildlife Action Plans”, Wednesday October 7, 3:30pm ET.     Join us for the first seminar in a series of Engaging Stakeholders in Climate Adaptation with Michelle Staudinger, Toni Lyn Morelli, and Alex Bryan of the NE CSC.  Read More background and instructions for how to join remotely >>


Michelle Staudinger is an Ecologist with USGS, serves as the Science Coordinator of the DOI Northeast Climate Science Center, and holds an Adjunct Assistant Professor position in the Department of Environmental Conservation at UMass Amherst.

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