U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Responding to an Existential Threat

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Background and the “Greatest Challenge”

The United States Fish & Wildlife Service (“FWS”) was established in 1871 to study and reverse the collapse of U.S. food fisheries. Throughout the 20th Century, FWS successfully responded to destruction of bird populations by establishing wildlife refuges, the threats of pesticides to many native species, and many other challenges. The mission of FWS is to “work with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”[1] Today, however, FWS faces “the greatest challenge to fish and wildlife conservation in the history of the Service”[2] in the form of climate change, which has the potential to cause changes to ecosystems and increase the risk of flora and fauna extinction.

Native U.S. species are already threatened by climate change, which will continue to affect American species at an accelerating rate as the Earth temperature rises. Arctic animals, such as polar bears, that rely on arctic ice are experiencing “rapidly diminishing” habitat,[3] while climate change increases the size and likelihood of insect, pathogen, and disease outbreaks, wildfires, and drought in the Western U.S. Rising sea levels contribute to the destruction of habitats on the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines, while higher global temperatures melt snow and glaciers upon which populations of cool- and cold-water fish (such as salmon) depend.[4] According to Climate Central biologist Nicole Heller, flora and fauna populations cannot adapt quickly enough to their rapidly changing habitats, meaning FWS is “essentially going to fail at its mission. Protected species are going to go extinct.”[5]


FWS Response to Climate Change

In its 2012 “Climate Change Strategic Plan,” FWS laid out its Five-Year Plan to respond to the significant challenge of rising global temperatures. The Plan outlines three different strategies: Adaptation, Mitigation, and Engagement.[6]

Adaptation is adjusting to climate change by mitigating damage and using advantageous opportunities to protect ecosystems. Adaptation is FWS’s primary short-term response strategy to climate change through Strategic Habitat Conservation (“SHC”). In practice, SHC means partnering with local, state, and national governmental organizations, private enterprise, individuals, and international partners to establish a unified Climate Adaptation Strategy. Broadly, FWS will establish cohesive relationships with other organizations to create interconnected ecosystems that protect and develop key floral and faunal resources such as waterways, coastal and marine environments, and species particularly vulnerable to climate change. To implement such an all-encompassing adaption plan, FWS must improve biological monitoring and inventory management programs, increase ecological capabilities through research, and strengthen international relationships with other conservation organizations.

Mitigation is the reduction of sources of and the increase of the sinks of greenhouse gases. FWS will mitigate global temperature increases by becoming a carbon neutral organization by 2020 and increase carbon sequestration capabilities. FWS’s carbon sequestration, or plants pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere to be stored as biomass or in the soil, plan involves planting locally native flora species to capture more carbon while also improving existing habitats.

Engagement is an outreach program to all environmental stakeholders to find solutions to global temperature increases. FWS’s engagement effort involves FWS employee education, external information sharing and training, and establishing partnerships to foster greater climate change learning and policy through international forums.


Further Actions

The challenge facing FWS is immense, and its response is ambitious. FWS, however, is in one of very few respected organizations with multi-century track records of successful conservation efforts. FWS can become a public face for conservation by raising awareness of the plight of certain animal species, especially “charismatic megafauna,” which are typically large, well-known animal species such as polar bears, eagles, and bison that have an outsized impact on human beings’ empathy.[7]

FWS is uniquely positioned to spread climate change awareness to hunters and fishermen, a subset of largely conservative Americans who have historically been resistant to climate change acceptance. Hunters and fisherman already have a high opinion of FWS, as FWS is the body that governs and preserves hunting and fishing resources in the United States.


(Word Count: 776)

[1] “About the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Mission Statement


[2] “Rising to the Urgent Challenge: Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Change,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2012, pp. 2


[3] “Climate Change,” Polar Bears International


[4] “Rising to the Urgent Challenge: Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Change,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2012, pp. 7

[5] “Fish & Wildlife Service Lays Out a New Course for Species Conservation in the Climate Change Era,” Climate Central, 2010


[6] “Rising to the Urgent Challenge: Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Change,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2012, pp. 14

[7] “Charismatic Megafauna and Beyond”, Discover Society, 2016



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Student comments on U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Responding to an Existential Threat

  1. Hey will,

    Found your post super interesting!
    The question remains, how do you influence the minds of conservative Americans who have historically been resistant to climate change acceptance? Is raising awareness enough?

  2. I am happy to learn that there is such a powerful association in America capable of creating environmental awareness among a sector of the population that is very attached to the nature. At a more granular level, the Fish & Wildlife Service (“FWS”) has the challenge of advising states on the strategies they should pursue in this field. As well as that, there are many businesses and individuals who earn a living performing activities related to hunting or fishing. The FWS should also concentrate on them, explaining the potential impact of climate change in their business so that they are able to react on time and continue to be sustainable (e.g. through a change in the business model or in the game they are focused on)

  3. Will, this was a super interesting read, thank you for sharing! I’m both circumspect and optimistic about the FWS’ ability to reach hunters and fishermen- I worry that them pushing the climate change agenda to this target audience that is so resistant and skeptical might result in creating disillusionment and distrust and lead to fairly tenuous relationships between the two.
    Do you have any suggestions for how best the FWS can communicate to hunters and fishermen that these conservation measures are in fact for protecting their birthright- healthy populations of fish and game?

  4. Will, great choice of organization! US FWS plays such an important role in protecting habitat and they will certainly be majorly impacted by climate change. As they seek to implement SHC with limited resources, are they thinking about which habitats/species they will priortize? Do you think they will be forced to make tough tradeoffs – if so, how should they think about which habitat/species are the most important?

  5. Will- Remarkably prolific prose and very strong article. Really enjoyed the way you weaved in the implications of the US political system, especially the conservative base that they have to play in, as part of the story. Lots of ramifications for sustainability but seems like they could do a really great job of playing Switzerland in the world of climate change.

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