Climate change, overexploitation pose biodiversity risks in Wisconsin

Over the past 50 years, there have been unprecedented losses of plants, animals and insects around the world due to human-related causes, like climate change and habitat destruction. And a recent report provides a snapshot at how much this could be affecting Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is one of the states most at risk for biodiversity loss in the Great Lakes region, according to the report from Defenders of Wildlife. Compared to the rest of the country, Wisconsin ranked just outside the top ten for states most at risk.

So, why is biodiversity important? How did Wisconsin and the Great Lakes states fare? And what can you do to protect biodiversity? Here’s what what we know.

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is all the different kinds of life found in an area, including plants, birds, animals and microbes. It includes all of the variety on Earth from genes, species and ecosystems.

Why is biodiversity important?

Healthy ecosystems need a wide range of animals, plants, insects and microbes.

Every species fills a role in ecosystems, and the system isn’t going to work properly if a species is lost, said Erin Giese, a scientist at the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

For example, in a prairie some plants have short roots and others have deep roots, which allows better filtering of nutrients out of the groundwater, Giese said.

Biodiversity isn’t just important for an ecosystem to thrive, it provides services for humans as well. Scientists estimate that more than one-third of the world’s crops need pollinators to reproduce, helping to maintain food security. Biodiversity is important to treat disease as around 40% of Western drugs come from plants. Outdoor tourism as well as fishing and hunting industries also rely on biodiversity.

How do Great Lakes and Wisconsin contribute to biodiversity?

With more than 80% of North America’s surface freshwater, the Great Lakes region is abundant with biodiversity, sustaining more than 4,000 species of plants and animals.

Thanks to Wisconsin’s diverse landscapes, there are approximately 1,800 species of native plants and nearly 700 species of native vertebrates – animals with a backbone, like fish, reptiles, birds and mammals – that have been found in the state. There are also thousands of non-vascular plants, like mosses, and invertebrates as well.

The Great Lakes and Wisconsin are hotspots for birds, especially breeding birds, Giese said. In Wisconsin, 460 bird species have been identified across all seasons.

What are the threats to biodiversity?

The five main drivers of biodiversity loss include: climate change, invasive species introduction, habitat destruction, overexploitation and pollution, according to the report.

Since 1970, nearly 70% of global populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians have been lost, according to a 2022 report by the World Wildlife Foundation. In the U.S., 40% of animals and 30% are at risk of extinction, according to a report from NatureServe.

Wisconsin is among the states with the highest risk for biodiversity loss

The report mapped the five main drivers of biodiversity loss to determine what is the main cause of biodiversity loss in each state.

Wisconsin is the 11th most at risk state in the country for biodiversity loss. According to the report, the most drastic losses will come from climate change as more intense precipitation and rising temperatures affect where species can live.

The biggest departures from current climate will come in the Driftless Area and along the Mississippi River, according to the report. Wisconsin was the seventh state most at risk for biodiversity loss due to climate change.

Overexploitation – when species are removed from the wild faster than they can recover – is a major problem in the upper Midwest where there is abundant freshwater fishing and harvestable species.

Wisconsin faces high risks from overexploitation in the southeast as well as along the Mississippi River. It was the sixth state most at risk for losses from overexploitation.

Biodiversity loss due to pollution is also a threat in Wisconsin, which ranks eighth in the country. According to the report, the threat is fairly uniform across the state with the greatest threat concentrated near the Lower Fox River.

The threat of biodiversity loss due to invasive species is greatest near Lake Michigan.

What about the other Great Lakes states?

After Pennsylvania, Wisconsin was the second most at risk state for biodiversity loss in the Great Lakes. Here are how the eight Great Lakes states fared from most to least at risk:

  1. Pennsylvania
  2. Wisconsin
  3. Indiana
  4. Michigan
  5. Ohio
  6. New York
  7. Illinois
  8. Minnesota

According to the report, climate change is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity in the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest. There are more gentle changes in topography that can potentially cause greater ecosystem shifts, making species more vulnerable.

All but two Great Lakes states – Illinois and Pennsylvania – ranked in the top ten for states most at risk for biodiversity losses from climate change.

How can people protect biodiversity?

According to the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific society, here are some ways individuals can help protect biodiversity:

  • Support action committed to protecting and restoring biodiversity;
  • Support companies as well as local and regional projects helping to tackle biodiversity loss;
  • Recycle;
  • Buy fewer products and reduce waste of goods, like food, electronics and clothes;
  • Check the products you buy and the companies to make sure buying habits are not destroying habitat and impacting biodiversity; and
  • Help educate the public about biodiversity, threats and opportunities to protect species.

Source: Climate change, overexploitation pose biodiversity risks in Wisconsin

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