Conservation areas and threatened species in the changing climate

Species occurring in conservation areas may disperse to new areas in the future. Conservation areas will retain their importance in the conservation of biodiversity, but changes in the geographic ranges of species will have to be factored into conservation planning and environmental management. Threatened and endemic species may be especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Nature conservation in Finland

The objective of Finland's nature conservation legislation is to preserve biodiversity. The primary means of conservation is conservation areas, which are established to conserve both biotopes and species. Approximately 9 % of Finland's area is protected under the Finnish Nature Conservation Act and the Finnish Wilderness Act. In terms of area, conservation is mostly concentrated in Northern Finland. Conservation areas help to preserve not just biodiversity but also cultural landscapes and heritage as well as recreational and hiking areas for citizens. Finland has 35 national parks, 19 nature reserves, and – including areas located on private land and on the Åland Islands – a total of 7,685 statutory nature conservation and wilderness areas. [1] [2]

Conservation efforts are necessary because many species and habitats have become threatened. According to the 2008 conservation status assessment, a total of 188, or 51 %, of the biotopes found in Finland are currently threatened. Many of the threatened biotopes are small in area, which is why their percentage of the total area of Finland is small. [3]

Finland has approximately 45,000 species, of which 21,400 are known sufficiently well to determine their conservation status. According to the 2010 conservation status assessment, a total of 10.5 % of all species qualify as threatened. A total of 36% of all threatened species are found in forests and a total of 23 % in cultural landscapes and other environments modified by human activity, such as meadows and roadsides. Coastal regions are the third most important habitat for threatened species, and 13 % of all threatened species are found in coastal regions. The primary reasons behind the endangerment of species are reforestation in abandoned cultural landscapes and changes resulting from forest management techniques. [4] Residential development, alien species, climate change, eutrophication, environmental toxins, and random events that only affect a very small section of a species' population and geographic range also deplete biodiversity [4] [5].

Koli © Tapio Heikkilä

Hikers in Koli National Park. 

Conservation efforts are necessary because many species and habitats have become threatened. According to the 2008 conservation status assessment, a total of 188, or 51 %, of the biotopes found in Finland are currently threatened. Many of the threatened biotopes are small in area, which is why their percentage of the total area of Finland is small. [3]

Finland has approximately 45,000 species, of which 21,400 are known sufficiently well to determine their conservation status. According to the 2010 conservation status assessment, a total of 10.5 % of all species qualify as threatened. A total of 36% of all threatened species are found in forests and a total of 23 % in cultural landscapes and other environments modified by human activity, such as meadows and roadsides. Coastal regions are the third most important habitat for threatened species, and 13 % of all threatened species are found in coastal regions. The primary reasons behind the endangerment of species are reforestation in abandoned cultural landscapes and changes resulting from forest management techniques. [4] Residential development, alien species, climate change, eutrophication, environmental toxins, and random events that only affect a very small section of a species' population and geographic range also deplete biodiversity [4] [5].

Effectiveness of current conservation areas

On a global scale, the current range of conservation areas is not adequate, as they do not cover all known species or habitats. Studies indicate that 12% of the more than 11,600 described species of terrestrial vertebrates and 20% of threatened species do not occur in any conservation area [6]. The majority of the existing conservation areas were established before the introduction of the current approach to conservation planning, which takes into consideration not just the diversity of species but also the size and characteristics of an area and its ecological connectivity to other conservation areas. Little has been done for the conservation of freshwater and marine ecosystems so far, and the majority of conservation areas focus on terrestrial ecosystems [7]. Finland has five national parks that are dedicated to the protection of coastal and marine environments. There is also a plan to establish a national park for the protection of the Bothnian Sea.

Conservation areas are not necessarily able to preserve the species and habitats for the protection of which they were established. Changes in land use and the fragmentation of habitats around conservation areas have already reduced the number of habitats to such an extent that many areas will not be able to support the species that currently occupy them in the long term, which produces an extinction debt. According to current estimates, the populations of almost all of the threatened forest species found in Southern Finland, such as many beetles and bracket fungi, will continue to decline due to events in the past, and these species may become extinct in the near future [8]. The chances of survival of many species can be improved by increasing the size of conservation areas, by improving ecological connectivity between them, or by restoring habitats [9]. Thanks to new conservation planning tools, forest conservation areas in Southern Finland were extended by 10,000 hectares in 2009 [10].

Kääpiä © Pirjo Ferin-Westerholm

Bracket fungi are most commonly found in old-growth forests. The fungi shown in the picture were found in the primeval forest surrounding Lake Saarijärvi in Kainuu.

The effect of climate change on the effectiveness of conservation areas

The geographic ranges of species and habitats will change with climate change. This is why nature conservation areas may no longer be able to protect the species and habitats that previously occupied them. As the geographic ranges of species move northwards, many species that require conservation may be lost due to changes in their habitat and their poor ability to disperse to new areas. Species for the protection of which conservation areas were originally established may disappear from these areas and not be able to re-establish themselves in new conservation areas due to poor ecological connectivity, for example. On the other hand, any new areas where species are able to re-establish themselves may be small, fragmented, and in need of protection [11].

The geographic ranges of species of birds occurring in the northern parts of Europe are expected to narrow in the future [12]. Experts predict that overlaps between conservation areas and places with the highest diversity in terms of terrestrial birds occurring in Finland and other nearby northern areas will dwindle by 2051–80. This is why many species that are already particularly susceptible to climate change and in particular need of the protection offered by conservation areas will be denied it even though Northern Finland has the country's most extensive network of conservation areas. [13]

On a European scale, studies indicate that between six and eleven percent of species of plants will disappear from conservation areas chosen on the basis of current criteria in fifty years. Five percent of the studied species are projected to lose their climatic ranges altogether. [14]

The challenge of conservation planning is to preserve both the current and the future habitats of species. Planning is especially difficult with regard to species whose current and future ranges do not overlap at all, not to mention those that stand to lose their climatic ranges altogether. Northern and Eastern Finland seem to be vulnerable in this sense at least when it comes to species of plants. [14]

The future of conservation

What good are conservation areas that are located in the wrong places from the perspective of the future geographic ranges of species [12] [14]? Even if many species move away from areas that they previously occupied, conservation areas still have an important role to play in preserving habitats. New species may also appear, and conservation areas can buy time for increasingly rare species to reproduce and disperse to new areas [12].

Nevertheless, new conservation areas will probably be needed. The conservation network of Southern Finland in particular is unlikely to be able to provide adequate opportunities for species to adapt or relocate [15]. However, conservation areas alone are not enough [12]. Managing natural environments left outside conservation areas in a sustainable manner will become increasingly important, and care must be taken to preserve and increase diversity in terms of landscapes and the quality of habitats as well as to mitigate the adverse effects of human settlements [16] [17]. This will need to be taken into consideration especially as regards the management of forests and agricultural environments [15]. Because changes in the geographic ranges of species extend beyond national borders, an international dimension should be introduced to conservation planning. [12]

Ecological corridors or "stepping stones" may prove vital for allowing species to disperse from one habitat to another. The importance of ecological connectivity is already evident, because the conservation of diverse forest ecosystems in Finland is dependent on sufficient connections to the ecologically diverse mature forest regions of Russia. Connectivity between the entire Fennoscandia and the Russian taiga could be ensured by means of a biolink zone between the countries with a higher percentage of mature trees than what is typical of commercial forests. [18]

More similar suggestions are needed. Studies have shown that ecological corridors help species to disperse from one fragmented patch of habitat to another. Whether they have more extensive uses is subject to debate, because factoring in the different requirements that species have regarding their habitats is difficult especially when it comes to narrow corridors. However, designing corridors that are effective in the face of climate change is possible. [19] Although uncertainties associated with geographic range models are still vast, the effects of climate change can be taken into consideration in conservation planning more and more effectively in the future. [20]

Threatened and endemic species and the threat of extinction

Although the current rate of extinction across the globe is significantly higher than the normal extinction rate [21], many of the species that are likely to become extinct due to climate change in the future are not even classified as threatened at the moment [22].

The best indicators of the likelihood of extinction as a result of climate change are the narrowness of a species' current geographic range [22] and lack of overlap between the current and the future range. These criteria are met in the case of several threatened species and especially endemic species. These species are considered to be especially vulnerable to climate change, although many other factors restrict their geographic range more than climatic conditions. However, relatively little research has been done on the subject so far. [23] In Finland, climate change is currently estimated to be one of the reasons behind endangerment in the case of 32 threatened species, many of which are mosses occurring in Northern Finland. Climate change is considered the primary risk factor for future endangerment in the case of 44 threatened (2.0%) and 84 near threatened (4.5%) species. [4]

Many threatened species are challenging in terms of conservation, because their ability to move with climatic conditions may be restricted by specialisation in certain types of habitats or dependence on other species [24]. Examples include many threatened species of fungi and insects found in old-growth forests [19]. Endemic species have evolved in geographic isolation, which makes their dispersal to new areas unlikely. The critically endangered Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis), which is only found in Finland, may no longer be able to build birthing lairs if the snow and ice cover available in the winter decreases or disappears. The Saimaa ringed seal digs its lair into a snowdrift, and the pups need the lair to protect them from the cold and from predators. [15]

Studies indicate considerable variation in how the geographic ranges of threatened and non-threatened species of butterflies occurring in Finland have changed. The geographic ranges of non-threatened species moved 84.5 kilometres northwards on average between the 1992–1996 period and the 2000–2004 period, while the ranges of threatened species remained unchanged (-2.1 km). The phenomenon is linked to the decrease of habitats typically occupied by threatened species, such as open meadows and dry grasslands, and the limited dispersal ability of adult butterflies. These factors are what in many cases caused the species to become threatened in the first place, and they will restrict the ability of the species to disperse to new areas as the climate changes. [25]

Isoapollo © Antti Below

An endangered Apollo butterfly (Parnassius apollo). The geographic range of the Apollo has not changed in recent years unlike that of most species of butterflies.

Small populations of threatened species are also affected by other environmental factors, such as the loss of habitats, as well as by random events that can drive a small population to extinction. Studies indicate that extinctions are likely to result from the combined effect of several factors [26]. The conservation of biodiversity as climate change progresses demands that the special characteristics of threatened and endemic species are factored into the design of conservation areas and other nature conservation efforts.

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