TWS member Bruce Marcot awarded for pioneering climate work

By David Frey

TWS member Bruce Marcot, a research wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, assembles gear on a plane wing during an Arctic research trip. ©Torre Jorgenson

TWS member Bruce Marcot has been at the forefront of researching climate change impacts on at-risk species for decades. Last week, he was honored for his work, which helped secure Endangered Species Act protections for the polar bear and has examined impacts on a wide array of species, from the Pacific walrus to caribou.

A research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, Marcot was awarded a 2017 Climate Adaptation Leadership Award for Natural Resources. The award, which was given at the National Adaptation Forum in St. Paul, Minn., honors individuals and organizations that raise awareness of climate change and prepare for its impacts.

“Bruce has done a lot of the foundational ecology research to inform the decisions that need to be made about species conservation in the arctic,” said Davia Palmeri, energy and adaption program manager for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The association is a leader on the National Fish, Wildlife and Plant Climate Adaptation Strategy’s Joint Implementation Working Group, which gives the awards in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Forest Service.

Marcot began studying climate change in the 1990s when he modeled the impacts on subalpine species from warming temperatures shifting habitats into higher elevations and latitudes in the interior West. In 2007, he began studying polar bears (Ursus maritimus) with the U.S. Geological Survey, modeling how they would fare under warming Arctic temperatures.

“We expected human effects in terms of hunting and pollution, but the primary factor was the expectation of sea ice loss in terms of climate change,” Marcot said. “Sea ice was vanishing faster than all climate simulations were saying.”  The work underpinned the federal government’s decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species in 2008, making it the first species to be listed due to impending threats of climate change.

Since then, Marcot has collaborated with USGS on studying climate impacts on the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus), and with the National Park Service on how animals that rely on the tundra —species such as caribou, grizzlies and carnivore prey— are impacted by changes in habitat to shrublands and forests that favor other species such as black bear and moose.  His current collaborative work evaluates the implications of such changes on wildlife used for subsistence by local communities of northwest Alaska.

“I’m hypothesizing that there’s going to be a trophic cascade of adverse impacts coming up,” he said, “and harsh times ahead for some subsistence communities.”

Marcot also has documented an aerial transect of  a northwest Alaska arctic landscape using still and video cameras to allow future researchers to quantify changes in conditions and wildlife habitats over time.

“It’s really intended as kind of a legacy,” he said.

Marcot’s work continues despite skepticism about human-caused climate change in the upper levels of the federal government. “That makes me all the more resolute to hang in there and do the most current and honest, objective science I can,” he said.

Marcot won the award in the federal government individual category. Other categories recognize climate efforts by federal, state, local and tribal governments, NGOs and partnerships.

David Frey is an editor at The Wildlife Society. Contact him at dfrey@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about his article. Read more of David's articles here.

You can follow him on Twitter at @davidmfrey.