Deciding what to save
There’s only so much money, staff and time to brace northern ecosystems against those changes. And in many cases, humans are adding to the problem with sprawling development, deforestation, agricultural pollution and other practices that degrade water quality.
So government natural resources managers are forced to choose which places are worth trying to save.
Natural resources management has always involved some degree of picking winners and losers — deciding where to stock fish or which habitat restoration efforts are most deserving of state grant money.
But the difference now is that the habitats themselves are changing in ways that resource managers can’t control.
In Minnesota, the state natural resources department has adopted a “Resist, Accept, Direct” strategy for deciding which North Shore rivers are worthy of the state’s limited resources to bolster them against climate change.
Those labeled “accept” are the ones where brook trout probably won’t survive. They tend to be compromised by logging and development, with few nearby public lands that the state has the power to protect.
“We could put five times as much effort and money into these systems, and yet, they’re still predicted to not be resilient into the future,” said Paron, the Minnesota DNR supervisor. “We need to put our time, energy and money into watersheds we feel have the best chance.”
That doesn’t mean those streams will become wastelands. As brook trout disappear, for instance, the state may stock them with other species that thrive in warmer water.
In Michigan, so far, the conversation about what to save and sacrifice is more subtle. The DNR has yet to adopt a ranking system like the one in Minnesota. But it routinely decides to stop prioritizing cold water fish in places where officials believe they can no longer survive.
Last year, for example, the state stopped stocking trout in Cedar Creek, a Barry County tributary of the Thornapple River that had been managed for trout for more than a century. The agency will now be treating the creek as a warm water habitat.
The state also recently stopped stocking rainbow trout in Halfmoon Lake, northwest of Ann Arbor, after concluding that the water is too warm for them to thrive.
Over time, Nohner said, Michigan will face increasingly tough decisions about which rivers are worth the effort.
“We can’t do it all everywhere,” he said. “And so we have to be strategic.”