The Meta-Threat

by Dennis Olson

In the last Pileated Post, FAS Board member Carole Jorgensen and Post Editor Lewis Young wrote two wonderful short summaries of two separate “meta-studies” – regarding the 29% decline in North American bird populations in the last 50 years, and, respectively, an Audubon study outlining the 64% of North American bird species vulnerable (to some degree) to climate change. Because these studies were huge and complex, Carole and Lewis both rightly referred and linked anyone with further interest to the studies themselves. I especially liked Carole’s call to action: keep your cats indoors, plant native trees and shrubs, leave snags, down wood and habitat piles, tolerate insects, demand companies and governments to operate in synch with biological balance, vote green, and support organizations that make a difference, such as Flathead Audubon, then worry—worry a lot!

Meta-studies take hundreds, sometimes thousands, of separate smaller-scope studies and try to make some conclusive sense out of them. The same process has been done with studies on climate change’s existence and possible causes. These sorts of studies are fraught with possible pitfalls. Scientists are acutely aware that conclusions about conclusions demand a lot of discipline — to reduce bias and cherry-picking of data based on a fallible human being’s pre-existing beliefs. The object is to get “belief” out of the process. Projecting future events can only be done well by carefully examining present trends, and then doing one’s best to examine the possible effects of known and possibly as yet unknown variables on those trends. It is a very daunting task.

So, I read both of the studies, as suggested. The bird decline study was conclusive and clear – bird populations have declined, largely but not exclusively due to habitat loss. The Audubon climate study was long, fraught with threat categories, projected declines with odds, continent and state maps showing estimates of by-the-end-of-the-century declines for each of 604 North American species — based on three climate change scenarios: (1) no change from present conditions, (2) a 1.5 degree centigrade rise in average global temperatures, and (3) the present trajectory of a 3-degree rise in average temperatures.  There were 21 pages just on Montana birds. With the assumption that the multiple authors of these studies have done their best, I am also going to assume that a good number of you readers probably won’t read it, for lots of good reasons. So I’ll add another summary layer to all the numbers, in the Queen”s English. All of the following is based on my humble understanding of my reading. The authors have stated that they tried to be very conservative in their projections. I’ll try to be as well … but fair warning. I’m mad.

By the end of the 21st Century, under the present 3-degree C. rise trajectory of warming climate, there is at least a 50-50 chance that these birds will be extirpated (read: gone, not breeding) from the State of Montana: Greater Sage Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Long-billed Curlew, Northern Goshawk, Northern Hawk Owl, Boreal Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Merlin, Northern Shrike, Black-billed Magpie, Tree Swallow, House Wren, Cedar Waxwing, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, Vesper Sparrow, Baird’s Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Brewer’s Blackbird, Common Grackle, Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow Warbler.

Close behind, with a 40% or greater chance of breeding season disappearance, are: American Wigeon, Common Loon, Red-naped Sapsucker, Western Wood Peewee, Townsend’s Solitaire, Chestnut-collared Longspur, McCown’s Longspur, American Redstart, Clay-colored Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow and Lincoln’s Sparrow.

We will likely not see winter visits from Rough-legged Hawks, Gyrfalcons, Bohemian Waxwings, Common Redpolls and Hoary Redpolls.

Many alpine and Subalpine birds, even those in the lower-elevation Western forests, will find their habitat and numbers greatly reduced. Boreal Chickadees, Mountain Chickadees, Canada Jays (formerly Gray Jays), Clark’s Nutcrackers, Pine Grosbeaks are some among many examples.

At least half of the bird species in Montana will find their breeding ranges moved farther north (or uphill) and drastically shrunken in size.

All this information is not good news for our birdwatching grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and certainly not good news for many, many species of birds. I have two young grandsons, so far, and my worries about them have more to do with famine, poverty, political upheaval, disappearing coastal lowland, and the multiplying effects just recently observed that may exacerbate the present 3-degree scenario.

There are many things we can personally do to reduce our own impact and even go nearly carbon-neutral in our personal lives, but the world’s cultures and economics are set up for the Holy Grail of “economic growth”. Transition away from stored fossilcarbon energy sources is not negotiable. It simply has to be done. We may even need to consider nuclear  energy again as a “caring bridge” to accelerate on the path to carbon neutrality. Just ask my grandsons. Ask Greta Thunberg. They are the ones who actually have something at stake in the future of this planet.

I just heard an ad today for something I don’t need that sloganeered “Nature is important, but not nearly as important as human nature …” As if there could be humans to have a “nature” without Nature. This Flat-Earther-esque ignorance of obvious reality has to stop, or at least get out of the way. We are the “vulnerable species” to extirpation.

I saw an unbylined quote the other day. “What if we are wrong about climate change and we needlessly create a better world …” 

Oh, the horror.