Navajo Nation Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Priority Wildlife Species

Written for the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife (NNDFW), this document explores potential climate change impacts in the southwest region of the United States and assesses the vulnerability of priority wildlife species that were identified by the Navajo for their cultural or ecological value. The NNDFW is the official wildlife management agency of the Navajo Nation, which covers roughly 27,000 square miles across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. The Department’s mission is to conserve, protect, enhance and restore wildlife toward the spiritual, cultural and material benefit of the Navajo people. During spring and summer months, climate change is projected to reduce water availability and increase drought severity and wildfires on Navajo lands. In mountain regions, early melting of snowpack is expected to cause greater flooding. While certain plant and animal species have high adaptive capacity to these stressors, the NNDFW must develop strategies toward the protection of species that are particularly vulnerable.

Between 2011 and 2013, the NNDFW facilitated public workshops to prioritize plant and animal species for protection. Workshop participants identified the following species:

  • Plants: pinyon pines, Mesa Verde cactus, Navajo sage, yucca, salt cedar
  • Animals: golden eagle, mule deer, desert bighorn  sheep, mountain lion, American black bear

The report employs the NatureServe Climate Change Vulnerability Index to estimate a species’ vulnerability to climate change. Exposure is defined as the degree of stress placed on a species’ habitat; sensitivity as the degree to which a species is affected by climate change; and adaptive capacity as the capability of a species to adjust to climate change. Together, levels of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity inform the vulnerability assessment.

According to the results, drought conditions are expected to lead to loss in pinyon pines and Mesa Verde cactus. Similarly, increased fire frequency threatens Navajo sage. Yucca and salt cedar, meanwhile, are resilient and well adapted to dry climates. For animal species, the report examines vulnerability across attributes such as population size, range and dispersal ability, response to manmade barriers and anthropogenic activities, and diet flexibility. According to the assessment, the bighorn sheep is most vulnerable to climate change stressors, while the mountain lion is least vulnerable.

The report concludes by offering general adaptation recommendations toward protection of priority species and their habitats, including conservation of wildlife corridors, translocation of highly threatened species, and more frequent ecosystem monitoring.


Publication Date: October 30, 2013

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