Evidence of climate change and its impact on wildlife is mounting, from costal refuges inundated with salt water as oceans rise to wildlife spotted in seasons and places where they've never been seen.
In Utah, concern has arisen for such sensitive species as pika -- a high altitude mammal that could vanish as temperatures climb -- and native cutthroat trout that don't fare as well as their exotic cousins in warm water conditions.
But until Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with protecting the nation's flora and fauna, had not articulated an overall strategy to address the effects of climate change on wild creatures and their habitat.
"Climate change is a reality. The debate is over. It is the single greatest conservation challenge of the 21st century," said Tom Strickland, assistant secretary of the Interior for fish and wildlife and parks, during a conference call with reporters. "The effect of climate change is widespread and it presents immediate challenges."
The plan's release comes a week after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order establishing a framework for bureaus within the Department of Interior to coordinate climate change science and ways to manage resources that will be affected. The Fish and Wildlife Service is the first of the agencies to respond to that directive.
The service's Strategic Plan for Climate Change focuses on three elements: reducing the impact of climate change on wildlife; finding ways to reduce levels of greenhouse gases; and working with conservation partners to provide the best answers for dealing with the issue on a national scale, but through local solutions.
While the plan advances only broad goals, such as planning and delivering "conservation actions that support climate adaptations" by wildlife, and changing "business practices to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2020," its emphasis on regional collaboration seems to signal a greater commitment to the best science available.
"This truly is a game changer," said Sam Hamilton, recently appointed director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They say 'as goes wildlife in the United States so goes the nation.' Improving the health and well being of wildlife benefits all Americans through clean water and clean air. We need partners to help us make informed and adaptive decisions in the face of adversity. We need to target the right science in the right places."
Barry Baker, a climate change scientist with the Nature Conservancy's Utah chapter, said he welcomes the opportunity to share research.
"The Nature Conservancy is working very hard to prevent the listing of additional species [to the Endangered Species list]," Baker said. "As long as there is good science behind these decisions, then as a scientist I feel very comfortable with this effort."
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources officials said the plan was not a surprise, but that it will take some time to figure out exactly how the Fish and Wildlife Service will implement it.
"We are watching to see what the changes will be," said Alan Clark, an assistant director with the state wildlife management agency. "One of the things they are trying to do is get the best information available and that is something we all want. In the meantime, we will keep doing what we have been doing, which is trying to make the ecosystem healthier so it is more resistant to change."
Hamilton, a career employee with the Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 30 years, said there's a greater desire among all the players in wildlife conservation to collect and share information on climate change.
"We are seeing some incredible partnerships," he said. "The silver lining to the climate change issue is that we are seeing more desire to cooperate and work together than any of us have seen before in our careers."
» Read the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's plan on wildlife conservation and climate change at www.fws.gov/home/climatechange. Comments will be accepted for 60 days.