Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge: Incorporating Climate Change Considerations into the Comprehensive Conservation Plan


The Refuge is currently working to incorporate climate change considerations into their Comprehensive Conservation Plan. 

The Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge was authorized in 1998 to acquire up to 77,000 acres of prairie across western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa.  The first parcels were added to the Refuge in 2000, and as of 2015 the Refuge included about 8,000 acres. 
Project Area and Management Goalsconeflowers on the prairie
The Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge was established to address the loss of America’s grasslands and the decline of grassland wildlife. Scientists estimate the original tallgrass prairie in Minnesota and Iowa covered about 25 million acres. Now, there are only about 300,000 acres left in the two states. The refuge was created to work with individuals, groups and government agencies to permanently preserve and restore some of the northern tallgrass prairie. The Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge encompasses all or part of 85 counties in western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa. The refuge’s long-term goal is to protect 77,000 acres through conservation easements and government ownership. 
The Refuge has begun work on its Comprehensive Conservation Plan, or CCP. The purpose of a CCP is to specify a management direction for the refuge for the next 15 years. The goals, objectives, and strategies for improving refuge conditions—including the types of habitat we will provide, partnership opportunities, and management actions needed to achieve desired conditions – are described in the CCP. The Service’s preferred alternative for managing the refuge and its effects on the human environment, are described in the CCP as well.
The Refuge worked with NIACS and other scientists to evaluate the impacts of climate change on the Refuge. Potential actions to adapt to those changes were identified as part of the process. 
Climate Change and the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge
NIACS summarized the current literature on climate change impacts to prairies in Minnesota and Iowa to help inform refuge managers. Key impacts include:
  • warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons (especially warmer winter lows)
  • more extremely hot days 
  • wetter springs followed by more prolonged summer droughts
  • more frequent heavy precipitation events            
  • changes in hydrology, including increased risks for flash floods
  • greater risk of wildfire
  • increase in new and existing invasive plant species
  • shifts in habitat suitability for many of the dominant tree species, with generally more northern species projected to decline and southern species projected to increase.   
  • shifts in habitat suitability for many focal bird species.

Adaptation Planning

Participants were broken into 3 groups and assigned one of 3 adaptation options. The three options were resistance (forestall change), resilience (improve the ability to bounce back after disturbance) or transition (help move systems toward future conditions). Each group was asked to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of selecting their option for the refuge. 
The Refuge then selected potential adaptation strategies and approaches that would align with the broad adaptation options in Forest adaptation resources: Climate change tools and approaches for land managers (Swanston and Janowiak 2012). Ideas for specific potential tactics were then developed for those strategies. These adaptation tactics are still being evaluated as part of the CCP process. 
Next Steps
Information from this exercise will be incorporated into the Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Refuge.
updated April 11, 2016