Could Loons Vanish from Wisconsin?

Humans are not good at thinking about the distant future. We are not alone in our short-sightedness. Living things, in general, are obsessed with the here and now and oblivious to what lies far down the road. There is a very good evolutionary reason for focusing on the present. Animals that succeed at surviving and protecting their progeny leave more young than other animals (in this case, hypothetical ones) preoccupied with what conditions might be like for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Animals that attend to their own survival and that of their offspring simply leave more offspring. Thus, natural selection can be said to favor animals that focus on the present — and animals within natural populations are chiefly descendants of parents and grandparents that cared for their own survival and that of their offspring. The short-term view makes sense evolutionarily.

Our very logical tendency to heed the here and now at the expense of the future has a limitation. Focus on the present adapts animals well to a stable environment, but leaves them poorly adapted to an environment that changes rapidly. Over evolutionary time, environmental change has generally occurred slowly enough to cause little problem for animals that live only for the present.

But humans have hastened environmental change. Anthropogenic changes have taken many forms, including introduction of invasive species, environmental degradation, and wholesale alteration of landscapes and vegetation. Perhaps surprisingly, many non-human animals have been able to keep pace with human impacts. In fact, some — crows, gulls and raccoons come to mind — have benefitted enormously from human activity. Others, of course, have become extinct, endangered or have seen their geographic ranges contract because of humans. We could quantify human impacts of each and every non-human species, if we cared to, and place each on a chart from least- to most-impacted.

Where on the chart would the common loon fall? Considering that loons are often viewed as the “voice of the wilderness”, one might suppose that they would suffer greatly from human encroachment. In fact, loons are hanging in there better than many other vertebrate animals. Knocked back in the middle of the 20th century, the common loon population has rebounded. Breeding populations are now generally stable or even increasing across most of the northern tier of United States. My study area in northern Wisconsin is typical; loons have re-colonized many lakes in the past few decades from which they had retreated. So loon populations are thriving despite extensive shoreline development, entanglements with hooks and fishing line, and increases in methylmercury levels, among many other challenges.

A new anthropogenic threat now looms that is more extensive and unrelenting than others that loons have faced. Climate change has already caused many geographic ranges of North American animals to recede northwards. A recent study showed that bird species differed greatly in their northward shifts, but that, on average, breeding ranges are marching northwards by over 2 km per year. We have a bit of an apples and oranges problem here; the bird species included in the study varied greatly in their diets and habitats. Some, no doubt, are highly dependent upon temperatures (and related factors like vegetation) for their survival; others are not. So it is difficult to project precisely how the geographic range of the common loon might be affected. But do this: take a look at Audubon’s animated depiction showing the contraction of the loon’s breeding range.

Two patterns are immediately clear from the animation. First, the northern Wisconsin loon population (and abutting populations in Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) exist on an isolated “finger” that projects southwards from the heart of the range, which lies in Canada. Second, the model paints a very bleak picture of the future loon population in northern Wisconsin. According to the model, loons are projected to be much less abundant in northern Wisconsin by 2050 and gone altogether by 2080.

Now, a word of caution. Audubon scientists have attempted to distill the climate down to two main factors: temperature and precipitation. On the basis of these two climatic factors, the current distribution of the species relative to these factors, and the projected future climate based on the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), they have produced the  animated graph that loon enthusiasts like us find so disturbing. Their projection is likely to provide a crude estimate of the impact of climate change on loons, not a precise one. That is, loons are likely to cope with climate change better than most other birds — as they have other environmental threats. Then again, loons might be especially sensitive to climate change and retreat northward more rapidly than the study predicts.

Like many other humans, I am obsessed with the day to day. I have studied loons as if they would be around forever. I have battled to obtain grants to keep my study afloat, to publish my papers in high-impact journals, to hire diligent field technicians who would collect reliable data. Now, forced by changing environmental conditions to glance towards the future, I can scarcely believe that the animals that I have learned so much about and grown so fond of might be well on their way to vanishing from Wisconsin in my lifetime.