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Originally published Sunday, March 18, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Address climate change with science, not opinion polls

To develop an effective approach to climate change, don't rely on public opinion polls; pay attention to those who are "voting with their feet" — the fish and wildlife that must adapt to or migrate from changing habitat or die, says guest columnist William Geer.

Special to The Times

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SHOULD elected officials and policymakers let public-opinion polls decide our nation's future response to climate change? Indisputably, no.

The roller-coaster path of public acceptance on climate change charted by political polls is frustrating to the pragmatists among us. With nearly 98 percent of the world's climate scientists saying climate change already is affecting the natural world, effective action requires the knowledge we gain from focused investigations and sound science — not political polls.

We should solicit the views of those not subject to political debates — fish and wildlife.

Biologists do that through field investigations on the distribution and abundance of species in habitats that meet their life-cycle requirements. If one habitat no longer will support a species, the species must move to another habitat that does. It cannot debate habitability in the public square and it votes by adapting, migrating or dying.

Growing climatological and biological information tells a story of environmental change in Washington state that is beyond rational debate. Washington's average air temperature increased 1.65 degrees Fahrenheit from 1951 through 2006, compared with a 1.25 degree increase for the United States. Average winter snowpack in the state declined 2.7 percent over the same period, and spring rain increased 16.2 percent.

August precipitation has declined 35.5 percent. The South Cascade Glacier in North Cascades National Park has been shrinking so rapidly over the past three decades that scientists predict it could melt completely within a century, jeopardizing chinook salmon reproduction in the Cascade River.

The best scientific predictions show that the sea level will rise 2 to 4 feet along the coast of Washington by 2100. Recent studies in Skagit Bay, Willapa Bay, Gray's Harbor and the mouth of the Columbia River predict nearly a 60 percent loss of low tidal habitat and eelgrass beds by 2100, probably leading to a steep decline in coastal black brant abundance.

Climate change is forcing Washington's elk populations to adapt to changes in their forage and shift their annual migration patterns. Variations in water quality and quantity could transform some trout rivers to smallmouth bass waters. Freshwater wetland loss throughout Washington could severely reduce waterfowl productivity. The loss of the insulation of prairie snow cover in Eastern Washington can kill sharp-tailed grouse chicks in early spring when air temperatures still are freezing.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, under the state's Climate Leadership Act, is planning adaptive measures to better conserve and manage fish and wildlife across broad landscapes in the changing climate. With recommendations from the Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group, the agency is emphasizing conservation of crucial areas, such as winter range for elk, and corridors that will enable fish and wildlife species to move to other suitable habitat.

Thomas Kimball, past director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said in 1981:

"Man is an integral part of the animal kingdom. As our environment becomes less livable for the subjects of the kingdom, it also becomes less suitable for the king. The status and trends of species diversity and the condition of fish and wildlife populations are the litmus tests of a healthy human environment."

Man and wildlife — we're all in this together. We need to accept that.

William Geer is the Climate Change Initiative manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He produced a video, "Beyond Seasons' End — Washington," documenting the impacts of climate change on Washington's fish and wildlife. He is based in Lolo, Mont.

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