Polar Bears
Polar bears are the poster child for the effects of a warming climate on wildlife. Reuters

The federal government is hoping to help American wildlife get by in a warming world.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama’s administration unveiled the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, the culmination of two years’ worth of work and conversations between federal and state agencies, private companies, tribal leaders and everyday citizens.

“Rising sea levels, warmer temperatures, loss of sea ice and changing precipitation patterns – trends scientists have connected to climate change – are already affecting the species that we care about, the services we value, and the places we call home,” Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes said in a statement.

“The Strategy is a comprehensive, multi-partner response that takes a 21st-century approach developed by the American public for sustaining fish, wildlife, and plant resources and the services they provide – now and into the future.”

The plan is centered around seven broad goals focused on both conserving threatened habitats and managing specific species. But it seems like there's a lot of preliminary work that needs to be done before any significant conservation measures are implemented. Scientists will have to identify high-priority areas and species that are already experiencing or likely to experience climate change impacts.

One key element will be establishing “corridors” between different kinds of protected habitat – say, from marshy wetland to forest. This would allow animals with broader ranges to move around more freely.

The management plan may also vary from species to species. Some threatened animals may need to be bred in captivity to shore up their numbers, while other species may primarily benefit from being moved into protected areas.

One 2009 review of 16 different strategies for helping wildlife cope with climate change, written by scientists from Heinz Center for Science, Economics & Environment and published and in the journal Conservation Biology, found that no one strategy can adequately protect all plants and animals.

On the subject of corridors that allow animals to move between protected areas, the authors noted that different animals of interests to conservationists may have very different patterns of migration. One study of wolves, lynx and marten in the northeastern U.S. found that it would be difficult to establish one general corridor that would accommodate the movements of all three species.

Overall, it’s unclear just how much money will be allocated to any of these strategies, or who is primarily responsible for implementation and determining success or failure. And the plan lacks both firm timetables (the plan's website mentions that actions "can be taken or initiated in the next five to 10 years," though this could be revised). At least one observer notes that the strategy lacks muscle.

“The plan has no authority to actually do [the things it outlines]; it just suggests that they'd be a good idea,” Popular Science associate editor, Dan Nosowitz, wrote on Wednesday.

While the plan talks about re-evaluating permits granted to private interests, working with ranchers and farmers to develop better land management plans, and mentions considering “market-based incentives that encourage conservation,” there’s little indication that there’s any kind of regulatory stick to go along with the carrot. There's little mention of any remotely aggressive effort to curb the carbon emissions that are the primary suspect in climate change.

Many existing laws and policies relating to wildlife and natural resource management were developed decades before climate change was considered a threat. Since these plans tend to reflect a more "static" view of biodiversity – where conservation means keeping threatened species and habitats walled up in reserves -- they're in dire need of review, the Heinz Center researchers wrote in their paper.

“Actually addressing the deficiencies identified through these reviews may be difficult without significant political will,” the authors said.