Winter conditions have changed substantially in the Great Lakes region over the last 50 years, with the region experiencing rising temperatures, declining lake ice cover, and increased lake-effect snow. These changes have direct implications for economically important wildlife, such as deer and waterfowl. Deer hunting alone contributes $482 million annually to Wisconsin’s economy.
The goal of this project was to identify how winter severity, snowpack, and lake ice could change through the mid- and late-21st century, and how species such as the white-tailed deer and mallard duck will respond. Because currently available climate data is at too coarse a scale to provide information on future conditions for the Great Lakes, researchers transformed these models from a global-scale to a regional-scale.
Using these models, researchers found that the region could experience substantial warming, reduced lake ice cover, and increased precipitation, with more precipitation falling as rain than snow, among other changes. Snow/ice cover limit foraging by waterfowl, thereby regulating the timing/intensity of migration and their distributions during non-breeding season. Reductions in weather severity could result in delayed autumn-winter migration for dabbling ducks, which would increase foraging pressures on wetlands in the Great Lakes region – highlighting the importance of protecting these wetlands. These changes in migration patterns could also lead to potentially significant economic losses in southern flyway states, as ducks may stay in the Great Lakes region during the winter months. The primary wintertime stressors for deer are air chill and snow depth, with extreme winters triggering population declines.
Changes in wildlife abundance and distribution can incur dramatic ecological, societal, and economic impacts. Warming may support expanded deer populations and overgrazing, while elevating infectious disease threats to deer. Annually in the U.S., 13.4 million people participate in deer and migratory bird hunting, generating $21.5 billion in revenue, with the hunting industry supporting 681,000 jobs.
Predictions of the future distribution of ducks and other wildlife in the region will help guide the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Ducks Unlimited, and other stakeholders in developing conservation and adaptation strategies for vulnerable species and in mitigating the potential economic losses that might result from changes in species distribution.