Great Lakes Wisconsin Forests

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Climate Change in Wisconsin
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Climate Change Impacts:
Forests and Terrestrial Wildlife

Northern Wisconsin, where the soil and climate conditions are less favorable to agriculture, is still dominated by forests. These forests provide habitat to a diverse array of wildlife and support the local economy through a strong forestry sector, which employs 74,000 workers and generates more than $18 billion in shipments, and a vibrant tourism and recreation industry, which generates $7.3 billion for wildlife watching and hunting in northern Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Changes in temperature, soil moisture, fire conditions, carbon dioxide concentrations, atmospheric nitrogen, and ground-level ozone will impact forests. Factors other than climate are also important drivers of change in forestry and forest ecosystems, and climate change may exacerbate existing stresses. Currently, it is not known how theses multiple changes will interact to alter the growth and distribution of Wisconsin's forests. Among the potential impacts of climate change with implications for forests and wildlife in Wisconsin are:

  • A Shift in Forest Composition
    Warmer temperatures will likely cause the northernmost forests of spruce, hemlock, and fir to shrink and other forest species to move northward. The ability of forest trees species to shift northward will depend not only on their own traits—such as seed dispersal methods—but also on physical barriers such as the Great Lakes and geographic variations in soil, and human land-use decisions.

  • A Reduction in Long-Term Forest Health
    Centennial State Park ForestIncreased atmospheric carbon dioxide and nitrogen will likely spur forest growth in the short term. However, several other factors attributed to climate change, including higher concentrations of ground-level ozone, more frequent droughts and forest fires, and greater risks from insect pests, may counteract these gains. Damage to forests from these factors will likely outweigh the initial benefit of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

  • A Loss of Bird Diversity
    Certain bird species will benefit from a warmer climate while others will suffer the impacts of increased competition, and ecosystem changes. Resident birds such as northern cardinals, and chickadees might be able to begin breeding earlier and raise more offspring. Greater resident bird populations, however, could increase competition for food and resources available for migratory songbirds and making it difficult for them to survive.

  • A Change in Local Mammal Populations
    Climate warming may benefit some resident mammals while negatively affecting others. Nuisance mammals, such as raccoons, skunks, and the already prolific white-tailed deer, stands to benefit from milder winters. Moose, currently near their southern geographic limit, could be negatively affected by warming and increasing numbers of deer-carried parasites.

  • An Increase in the Range of Forest Pests
    Insects have major effects on forest health as they influence primary production, community composition, nutrient cycling, and successional processes. The northern limit of some devastating forest pest such as the gypsy moth is currently determined by cold winter temperatures. These insects will almost certainly become more widely established throughout the region in a warmer climate.

Photo Credits:
Leopard Frog -- John Maguson.
Centennial State Park Forest -- Courtesy of Wisconsin DNR.
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