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Climate Change Adaptation Case Study
Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Using a vulnerability
assessment to inform conservation priorities
Fig. 1. This case study describes a vulnerability assessment of 163 species comprising 8 taxonomic groups from
Illinois’ list of “Species in Greatest Need of Conservation” designated in the state’s Wildlife Action Plan. The figures
show the distribution of these species by watersheds (fish, mussels, stream-dwelling crustaceans) and by natural
divisions (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, cave-dwelling crustaceans). The darkest colors indicate
watersheds and natural divisions with the highest percentages of species vulnerable to climate change per
vulnerability assessment ratings.
Case study series contact:
Illinois contacts:
Katherine J. Kahl, Kimberly R. Hall, Patrick J. Doran
[email protected] (517)316-2290
[email protected] (517)316-2257
[email protected] (517) 316-2279
The Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Project
Lansing, MI 48916
Jeffery W. Walk, Sarah L. Hagen, Aaron Lange
[email protected] (309) 636-3327
[email protected] (612) 331-0733
[email protected] (309) 636-3326
The Nature Conservancy in Illinois
Peoria, IL 61602
The Nature Conservancy broadly defines climate change adaptation as the process of designing,
updating and implementing strategies to account for the impacts of climate change to ensure the
highest return on our conservation actions.
Our vision of “climate-smart” conservation seeks to anticipate human responses to climate change, and
considers the benefits to people that result from our actions to protect and restore nature. Typical
steps in creating “climate-smart” projects involve evaluating current and projected changes in climate
factors, linking those changes to sensitive species, systems or processes, and ranking vulnerability.
These vulnerabilities, when integrated with other stressors on the system, may lead us to change some
aspect of our work to make sure highest priority threats are being addressed, and to ensure that we are
investing in conservation actions with a high likelihood of providing benefits to nature and people over
the long term.
In many states, staff at The Nature Conservancy work closely with state wildlife managers to help
support efforts to manage species and habitats in ways that protect and restore wildlife populations,
ecological systems and the natural benefits they provide for people. One key area for engagement
and partnership has been work on state Wildlife Action Plans (WAP). In 2005, Congress charged that
all states and territories create a WAP to help conserve wildlife and natural areas before they become
more rare and more costly to protect. States were required to develop these plans to continue
receiving federal funds through the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program and the State
Wildlife Grants Program. Like other states, Illinois developed strategic actions in their WAP by working
with a broad array of partners including scientists, sportsmen and women, conservation organizations
and communities. The WAP planning process allows partners to develop a framework that outlines
priority actions that must be accomplished to conserve a full array of wildlife and associated citizen
needs in the state and is meant to serve as a 10-year “conservation playbook” for all partners. Illinois,
like other states, developed a WAP that the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and partners
have been operating under since 2005.
The Illinois chapter of The Nature Conservancy was contacted by the DNR in 2009 to evaluate a subset
of Species in Greatest Need of Conservation identified in the WAP for climate vulnerability. This
opportunity for The Conservancy and DNR to partner on a key piece of the WAP update process was
attributed to several factors:
Motivation for states to engage in climate change assessments: Proposed 2009 “Cap and Trade”
legislation (American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009), which, if passed, could have
provided a source of funding for adaptation actions outlined in state Wildlife Action Plans;
Initial guidance on how to get started: The publication of the Association of Fish & Wildlife
Agencies’ Voluntary Guidance for States to Incorporate Climate Change into State Wildlife Action
Plans & Other Management Plans (Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies 2009);
Demonstrated experience: The Nature Conservancy in Illinois’ role in integrating climate
information into Chicago Wilderness’s Climate Action Plan for Nature (Chicago Wilderness
Climate Change Task Force 2010) and ongoing work contributing to the Climate Change Update
to the Biodiversity Recovery Plan (Chicago Wilderness Change Task Force 2010b). Chicago
Wilderness is an alliance of over 250 state, federal and NGO partners working on conservation
issues in greater Chicago.
Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Climate Vulnerability Assessment
Understanding of IDNR needs: Dr. Jeff Walk, who had coordinated the first WAP while working
for DNR, was now The Nature Conservancy in Illinois’ Science Director.
An opportunity to help move Illinois forward: Engagement on the WAP update was seen as an
opportunity for The Conservancy to increase our understanding of the vulnerabilities of key
species, and help influence Illinois’ conservation agenda, with an end goal of engaging
practitioners statewide to actively address climate change.
Scientists at The Nature Conservancy in Illinois used NatureServe’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index
(Young et al. 2010) to rank the vulnerability of 163 Species of Greatest Conservation Need listed in
Illinois’ WAP. This work compares patterns of species vulnerability across the state’s natural divisions
and major watersheds, reviews key impacts on habitats, and suggests important strategies that
managers can employ to help species and systems adapt. Assessing the climate change vulnerability of
these species represents a critical first step toward including climate considerations in the next update
to the WAP.
The climate update to the WAP (Walk et al. 2011), along with this companion case study, provides:
Data. The vulnerability ratings for Illinois’ Species in Greatest Need of Conservation provide
new insights into 1) how species and systems may respond to changes in climate and 2)
strategies that we can employ to help.
Action. The process of assessing vulnerabilities and linking them back to possible management
actions has provided some immediately actionable insights, like the need to update engineering
standards for constructed wetlands to accommodate more intense rainfall events, and thus
preserve water quality.
Guidance for managers. A key aspect of updating our work to incorporate climate change
involves questioning our assumptions and “business as usual” practices. We provide a list of
considerations for managers to help jump-start WAP update discussions.
The overall goal of this case study is to show how information is being used to advance conservation
strategies that consider future climate threats and to illustrate how and why climate change has been
incorporated. It is intended to help The Nature Conservancy communicate how we are learning, and
provide opportunities for feedback from our partners in resource protection and restoration. Through
this dialog, we hope to help clarify what “adaptation” means by providing clear examples of how linking
climate change impacts to the viability of our conservation targets leads us to change how we work,
where we work, or the partners we engage.
Predicting how temperature, intensity of storm events, and drought stress might impact the wide range
of species that state agencies are tasked with managing is a daunting challenge. As a first step to
updating the WAP, the Illinois DNR wanted to more fully understand potential climate-related impacts
on Species in Greatest Need of Conservation Need identified in the WAP - The designated Species
essentially form the backbone of the 10-year playbook that is the WAP. Conducting a climate
vulnerability assessment for these Species was seen as a tool for integrating climate change
vulnerability and adaptation into the conservation conversation for DNR, their conservation partners
and policymakers in Illinois.
Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Climate Vulnerability Assessment
How is Climate Projected to Change in Illinois?
A key component of assessing climate vulnerability is understanding “exposure”, or the extent to which
a species or system is expected to experience a change in climate. By the middle and end of the 21st
century (Union of Concerned Scientists 2009), conditions in Illinois are likely to be characterized by:
Winters that are “less cold” (in particular,
higher minimum temperatures)
Increases in peak storm events, especially
in winter and spring; more flooding
Increased summer heat and drought
Generally lower water levels in lakes and
Growing season up to 6 weeks longer
A climate change vulnerability assessment links these forms of exposure to the sensitivities of a species
or system (e.g., temperature tolerance, drought tolerance, ability to survive if stream flow changes),
while also considering that species’ or system’s ability to adapt (e.g., tolerate variation, move to a new
location). In many cases, a species’ or system’s ability to adapt may be constrained by things managers
can influence, such as the presence of invasive species that act as competitors for resources or lack of
suitable habitat through which a species can move to reach a more suitable climate. Taking actions to
address these concerns can be “climate-smart” adaptation strategies.
Which Species were Assessed?
The Nature Conservancy in Illinois assessed the climate change vulnerability for 163 species within eight
taxa. This assessment excluded species with little-known life history information, those extirpated from
the state or birds that only occur in the state during migration. All remaining crustacean, amphibian,
reptile and mammal Species in Greatest Need of Conservation were assessed. Scientists randomly
selected 20-30 species of mollusks, insects, fish and birds among the remaining candidate species until a
similar number of species would be assessed among taxonomic groups. A complete list of species
assessed can be seen in the full report (Walk et al., 2011). The assessment was conducted by natural
division for terrestrial species and by watershed for aquatic species. A regional resolution was chosen
(over a statewide assessment) to account for local landscape factors and therefore, to assess regional
differences in species vulnerability. This was intended to better inform the state’s wildlife management
and conservation planning.
Why NatureServe’s Vulnerability Tool?
Illinois staff collaborated with The Conservancy’s Great Lakes Climate Change Scientist, Kim Hall, to use
NatureServe’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index (Young et al. 2010) as the tool for assessing climate
change vulnerability. NatureServe’s Index was chosen because it provides a consistent framework for
assessing the climate change vulnerability for many species in a relatively short amount of time. After
entering data related to exposure to changes in temperature and drought stress (see,
users answer a series of questions to identify up to 29 factors related to other types of exposure,
sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. The Index returns a relative vulnerability rating for the species in the
assessment area, and identifies factors associated with vulnerability. This output provides a foundation
to begin adaptation planning.
Assessment Findings
The Index provides a vulnerability rating, on a scale from “Extremely Vulnerable” up to “Population
Increase Likely” (least vulnerable). In an effort to ensure and measure consistent and repeatable
outputs from the Index, the three Illinois Conservancy scientists provided input data for the same 25% of
Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Climate Vulnerability Assessment
species (n=128) to compare output vulnerability ratings. None of the scientists were subject experts for
all taxa but all had expertise to locate and synthesize input factors required by the tool. They achieved
the same vulnerability rating in 59.4% of cases. In an additional 38.3% of cases, the Index returned two
agreeing ratings and one rating a single rank higher or lower. This is interpreted as a nearly 98%
repeatability of results. The high proportion of similar results suggests NatureServe’s tool is robust to a
variety of users, and thus is useful for making broad comparisons across groups of species, and can be
repeated over time with consistent outcomes. An overall look at the variation in climate change
vulnerability ratings among taxonomic groups is shown in Figure 2.
Climate Change Vulnerability Ratings for Species in Greatest Need of Conservation
Highly Moderately Presumed
Vulnerable Vulnerable Vulnerable
Fig. 2. Climate change vulnerability ratings were assigned to 163 “Species in Greatest Need of
Conservation” within eight taxonomic groups, designated in the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan.
The assessment identified several important findings and insights:
Aquatic species in cool water or headwater streams (i.e., mollusks and fish), as well as some
amphibians associated with temporary pools, showed high vulnerabilities to climate change. Risk
factors suggested by the Index included increases in temperature with often limited potential for
movement into cooler systems (either due to low ability to move, or the presence of barriers), and
the potential for changes in the hydrologic regime (e.g., stream flow), including seasonal drying of
small streams or wetlands. Mollusks in particular stand out as often scoring Extremely or Highly
Vulnerable due to a strong reliance on other species (often fish) that act as larval hosts, and would
also likely be sensitive to changes in hydrology. Insects overall were moderately threatened. In
general, the Index suggests that species associated with smaller ecological systems, like a small
stream with variable flow, are likely to be more vulnerable than species associated with larger
systems (e.g., larger river system) due to the potential for changes in hydrology.
The Index is sensitive to the related factors of dispersal ability and habitat connectivity. Species
with limited ability to disperse and highly specific habitat requirements (e.g., small-bodied species)
had higher vulnerabilities. Similarly, when species were assessed in sub-sections of the state with
Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Climate Vulnerability Assessment
more barriers and less natural habitat, the Index scores tended to indicate higher vulnerability. For
example, terrestrial species tended to have higher vulnerabilities in natural divisions that were
highly developed or agriculturally dominated. An understanding of habitat requirements and
dispersal abilities of individual species are crucial when reviewing Index assessment results in the
context of developing conservation strategies.
This Index only takes climate change threats for a geographic area into account, not the full suite
of threats that may be present for a particular species. The large number of birds and mammals
that received largely stable assessment scores was surprising. This result reflects their typically
general habitat requirements, lack of strong dependence on a particular hydrologic regime or some
form of strong species interaction (i.e., pollinator-plant relationships), and ability to move to more
suitable areas if they are available. Although many of these species may be less vulnerable than
species that can’t easily disperse, it is important to recognize a few caveats associated with this
result. The result is focused on vulnerability in Illinois, as subdivided by natural division or
watershed. The Index does not address whether habitat might be available for species to move into,
and does not account for vulnerabilities that migratory species face along their migratory routes or
on wintering grounds. Care must be taken to interpret results in the broader context of information
known about a species and its habitat. These results should not imply that conservation resources
are not needed to protect bird and mammal species.
Species vulnerability varies across the state and by taxa. Figure 1 (cover-page) shows the
distribution of the 162 species assessed by watersheds (fish, mussels, stream-dwelling crustaceans)
and by natural divisions (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, cave-dwelling crustaceans).
The darkest colors indicate areas with the highest percentages of species vulnerable to climate
change per vulnerability assessment ratings. Managers can use this data, along with additional
information for species and systems, to help plan and prioritize conservation effort. For example,
considering these results when developing a connectivity strategy could provide insight into
targeting and prioritizing viable networks of lands and waters that have long term potential to
sustain biodiversity.
Consider species’ range shifts/northward range expansion. One piece of information that is
required by the Index is the position of the assessment area within the full geographic range of the
species being assessed. As part of the assessment, The Nature Conservancy team found that about
8% of species assessed occur at the southern edge of their range in Illinois while 15% occurred at the
northern edge of their range in Illinois. The Index takes these kinds of range characteristics into
account within its assessment score. For example, mobile species that are more common in
southern Illinois, and at their northern range limit there, often receive a score of “Increase likely”
(e.g., a range shift that leads to expansion of the range further into Illinois may occur). Northward
range shifts are generally forecast for mobile species in the Midwestern U.S., though changes in land
use and interactions with other species can result in range expansion or contraction in any direction.
This has important and broader implications for
o designating Species in Greatest Need of Conservation at the edge of their ranges,
o understanding the context of a species’ abundance or rarity compared to that within the rest
of its range, and
o prioritizing conservation investment.
The question of whether to invest time and financial resources into a species whose population may
be shifting (northward) out of the state is one that should be considered within larger, long-term
conservation planning efforts.
Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Climate Vulnerability Assessment
Examples of how to think through incorporating climate change adaptation or mitigation for the eight
target systems in the WAP (i.e., Streams, Forest, Farmland & Prairie, Wetlands, Invasive Species, Land &
Water Stewardship, Green Cities) can be seen in Table 1. Each action and climate consideration is traced
back to the reported climate change vulnerability of an individual species from the Species in Greatest
Need of Conservation list and/or the projected changes likely to affect the habitats on which those
species depend. In Table 1, “2005 WAP Conservation Actions” are examples of the broad-scale
strategies from the original WAP. “Climate Change Considerations” describe why those actions are
relevant and how they may need to be modified or applied differently given the anticipated effects of
climate change on species, habitats and processes. “Who Will Benefit & Where” describes some of the
places and Species in Greatest Need of Conservation (bold) affected by the modified action, as well as
benefits to people.
With the assessment and recommended considerations now available, Illinois conservation practitioners
have the information at hand to begin developing and deploying informed, site-specific conservation
efforts and begin implementing adapted conservation practices under the umbrella of the WAP. High
priority action items include: 1) As a strategy for reducing sediment and nutrient loads in waters
draining from agricultural and developed areas, engineering standards for constructed wetlands need
to be revised to account for more frequent high-precipitation events to avoid failure; 2) Chicago
Wilderness’ vulnerability assessments, already underway, will help prioritize species and habitat within
their regional long term conservation strategies (Chicago Wilderness Climate Change Task Force
2010a,b); and 3) Locations for endangered species reintroductions are being reconsidered based on the
potential for long-term viability and stewardship, rather than only locations of historical occurrence.
Overall, the process is generating new ideas about a long-term conservation vision for the state. In
developing the WAP, partners identified “Conservation Opportunity Areas” (COAs), locations with
particular importance to conserving the diversity of the state’s wildlife. Many COAs are the “biggest and
best” examples of grasslands, savannas, forests, wetlands, and streams. Viewed through the lens of
climate change, COAs represent a set of core areas to sustain populations on the Species in Greatest
Need of Conservation list. The network of rivers and streams in Illinois, and the concentrations of
wetlands and forests along them, will be crucial corridors for species migrations, and linking
conservation in Illinois to other states in the region. Conservation efforts in the matrix of working lands
and developed areas are important to protecting livelihoods, providing outdoor recreation
opportunities, and sustaining the quality of life of the state’s residents. Strategic use of agricultural Best
Management Practices, such as constructed wetlands and riparian buffers, help sustain agricultural
productivity while improving drinking water quality. A focus on floodplain restoration and reconnection
will minimize the damage that increased flooding will cause to homes and businesses.
Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Climate Vulnerability Assessment
Table 1. Examples of WAP Conservation Actions with considerations for climate change adaptation/mitigation. This table supplements Walk et al. 2011.
2005 WAP
Conservation Action
Climate Change Consideration
(Walk et al. 2011 update report)
Who Will Benefit & Where
Protect, restore and
enhance near-stream and
in-stream habitats and
Riparian vegetation that shades streams can
minimize increases in water temperature;
restoring stream habitat and a variety of depth
creates microclimate refugia.
Restore and manage
native prairie
communities and
populations of imperiled
and extirpated prairie
Maintain and enhance the
composition of Illinois‟
forested habitats.
Not all currently or historically-occupied
locations may remain appropriate for
imperiled species. Consider maintaining
populations based on sustainable, viable
population networks and long-term
stewardship and monitoring capacity.
Efforts to re-establish trees tolerant of more
xeric conditions (e.g., oaks and hickories) are
especially important, considering that
mesophytic species which have increased in
recent decades (e.g., sugar maple) may not be
able to tolerate conditions in Illinois by midcentury
Since more precipitation and high rainfall
events are anticipated, engineering standards
for constructed wetlands should be updated to
ensure drainage structures and spillways are
designed to accommodate greater flows.
The blacknose dace, southern redbelly dace and smallmouth bass
are fishes dependent upon the cool groundwater flowing into the
Mackinaw River. Many stream segments lack riparian trees to shade
the stream and prevent rapid temperature increases. Sedimentation
has filled many deeper water pools. Restoration can reduce erosion,
benefit water quality, and enhance the smallmouth bass fishery.
Although the ornate box turtle has several small, disjunct
populations in the state, these are profoundly isolated by extensive
conversion of prairies to cropland. The network of protected sand
prairies in NW Illinois’ Mississippi River Sand Area currently hosting
robust box turtle populations, with movement possible between
populations, likely offers the best chance for long-term persistence.
The slender glass lizard and timber rattlesnake are dependent on
forest openings with ample sunlight for thermoregulation, and could
benefit from the restoration of open oak woodlands. They also rely
on rocky outcrops for hibernacula - features common in the
Shawnee Hills of southern Illinois and unglaciated Driftless Area in
the northwest corner of the state. Choose oak opening restoration
sites in places where rocky outcrops also occur.
Most natural wetlands have been lost to drainage and development
in the Northeastern Moraine Area near Chicago. Maintaining the
hydrology of constructed and restored wetlands in spite of changes
in precipitation patterns will be essential for conservation of marshnesting birds like king rails, common moorhens, and marsh wrens,
and the wetlands’ proper functioning to improve water quality and
store flood waters.
Many species of wildlife have adapted to living in developed areas
near people. One surprising discovery has been the prevalence of
Franklin’s ground squirrels in ‘rails to trails’ sites in several
communities in the Grand Prairie region of central Illinois.
Developed as an amenity for people, in part to reduce travel-related
green house gas emissions, these trails provide a refugia for the
squirrels after their shrub-grassland habitat has been virtually
eliminated from the surrounding rural areas.
Construct and restore
wetlands to provide
additional wildlife habitat
and improve water
Minimize the adverse
effects associated with
development on wildlife
and habitats, and
wildlife and habitat
conservation in
developed areas, as
possible or appropriate.
Green infrastructure that preserves ecological
connectivity is designed to help slow or absorb
run-off from more frequent high-rainfall
events and will be increasingly important.
Urban residents are likely to experience the
most lethal effects of climate change during
heat waves, and Increasing tree cover in can
help moderate temperatures.
Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Climate Vulnerability Assessment
With all state WAPs set for formal revision by 2015, now is the time to carefully think about the
overall update process and criteria to ultimately improve upon the long-term success of our
conservation investments. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stated that Species in Greatest Need of
Conservation GNC, “including low and declining populations as the State fish and wildlife agency deems
appropriate, that are indicative of the diversity and health of the State's wildlife” shall be designated.
These species and the systems they inhabit shape and define the 10-year playbook for the state’s
conservation community.
This case study highlights some key questions that will provide useful discussion topics as WAP teams
develop their updates:
1. How do we plan for potential species range shifts and what priority should be given to species
on the edge of their range?
2. How are we treating rare species? Especially those who are rare in the state largely because
their range only slightly overlaps the state boundary but are common elsewhere?
3. What are the fundamental species, habitats and processes we are trying to conserve and how
are they likely to be affected by direct and indirect climate changes?
4. Are current conservation actions likely to sustain targets in the near and long term? Should
additional targets be added? Should any current targets be dropped?
5. Given the ever-increasing amount of information on climate change, experience with this
climate change update and knowledge of the results, do we need to “take a step back” and
review the eight U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service WAP Required Elements?
6. How do we do a better job sharing information, and sharing management responsibility, with
managers beyond state borders? Engaging in collaborative “think tank” opportunities like the
Climate Adaptation Collaboratory ( could be a novel way of sharing techniques
and best practices with other adjacent states working toward common conservation goals.
Funding for the climate change update to the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan was provided in part by U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Funding for The Nature
Conservancy’s climate change adaptation case study series was provided by the Kresge Foundation.
Suggested Reference
Kahl, K., K. Hall, J. Walk, S. Hagen, A. Lange and P. Doran. 2011. Climate Change Case Study Series.
Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Using a vulnerability assessment to inform conservation
priorities. The Nature Conservancy, Great Lakes Project. Lansing, Michigan.
Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Climate Vulnerability Assessment
American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454). Rep Waxman, Henry A. [CA-30] (introduced
Chicago Wilderness Climate Change Task Force. 2010a. Chicago Wilderness Climate Action Plan for
Nature. Version 1.0.
Chicago Wilderness Climate Change Task Force. 2010b. Changing Landscapes in the Chicago Wilderness
Region: A Climate Change Update to the Biodiversity Recovery Plan. Version 1.0.
Hansen. L. J., and J. R. Hoffman. 2011. Climate Savvy: Adapting conservation and resource management
to a changing world. Island Press.
Illinois Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Action Plan and Strategy. Version 1.0. 2005. State of
Illinois. pdf
Union of Concerned Scientists. 2009. Confronting Climate Change in the U. S. Midwest: Illinois.
Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Voluntary Guidance for States to Incorporate Climate Change into State Wildlife Action Plans & Other
Management Plans. 2009. Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies.
Walk, J., S. Hagen, and A. Lange. 2011. Adapting Conservation to a Changing Climate: An Update to the
Illinois Wildlife Action Plan. Report to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Prepared by Illinois
Chapter of the Nature Conservancy
Young, B., E. Byers, K. Gravuer, K. Hall, G. Hammerson, and A. Redder. 2010. Guidelines for Using the
NatureServe Climate Change Vulnerability Index. Release 2.01. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia.
Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Climate Vulnerability Assessment