A Shifting Wisconsin: Local Extinctions, Migrations, And Culture In The Face Of Climate Change

Apr 9, 2020

A Wisconsin fish kill, an event that could be more common as the climate gets warmer and wetter.
Credit Madeline Magee

By the middle of the century, the climate, the waters, and the species of northern Wisconsin could look like today’s southern Wisconsin.

That’s according to projections presented at a scientific conference last week.

In turn, climate change could force southern Wisconsin to look like states including Kansas and Virginia.

The shifts are just a few of the many disruptions we’re facing as the Earth gets warmer and wetter, shifts that were detailed at the Wisconsin Waters 2020 convention.

The convention was supposed to fill a conference center in Stevens Point, with dozens of speakers engaging on every topic related to lakes and rivers.

Instead, the organization pulled off a massive pivot due to COVID-19 last week, moving the entire convention to online presentations, attended virtually by hundreds of people across the state.

Peter David, a wildlife biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“There’s that old adage for nervous speakers.  I’m often one of those.  They tell you to imagine your audience in their underwear.  That might actually be the case for some of you out there,” said Peter David, a wildlife biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC).

David started his presentation with that joke, but his topic was serious.

Climate change is a major factor in the disappearance of wild rice across Wisconsin.  It’s a species that holds a central role in indigenous cultural life, especially for Ojibwe tribes.

“It turns out that as food, this is extraordinary stuff,” David said.  “This had more overall nutrition than any other single food that was available to the native diet.  It played a critical role in tribal life, literally from birth to death.”

Sokaogon Chippewa Rice Chief Pete McGeshick III poles across Rice Lake in September 2019.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

But with climate change expected to cause more severe weather, changing temperatures, and variable water levels, experts say wild rice, which grows on lakes and rivers, is likely the traditional tribal resource most in danger.

The year-to-year wild rice cover on Dean Lake.
Credit Peter David

“We’re having a loss at an appreciable rate,” David said.  “In the last ten years, I can point to five or six beds in Wisconsin that probably account for five or six percent of the rice that have disappeared.”

Wild rice is just one of the resources on a “menu” developed, in part, by Rob Croll, a GLIFWC policy analyst.  It’s called the Tribal Climate Adaptation Menu, a resource for planning using indigenous knowledge in the face of climate change.

Rob Croll, a policy analyst with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Credit LinkedIn

“Species will migrate out of the area or disappear, which means a loss of traditional foods, a loss of traditional activities, and existential threats to culture,” Croll said.

Those species will migrate or disappear from their traditional territory in northern Wisconsin because northern Wisconsin, by mid-century, is projected to look like southern Wisconsin in terms of climate.

That prediction is part of a tool developed by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

“In the coming decades, Wisconsin is going to have changes in its precipitation and temperature.  It’s going to start to resemble other states that are nearby.  These are known as ‘climate analogues,’” said Jason Granberg, a DNR conservation biologist.  “If we know what species are found in these other climate analogues, we can select them for our analysis because they may come to Wisconsin in the future.”

In the median projection, northern Wisconsin will look like southern Wisconsin.

Southern Wisconsin will look like Illinois, Missouri, and even Kansas and Virginia.

A "climate analogue" mapping tool from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts shows southern Wisconsin's climate could resemble that of Illinois, Iowa, and even Kansas and Virginia by mid-century.
Credit WICCI

That’s a concern, for one, for the survival of cold-water lake fish in the state.

Cisco, for example, are already struggling in many places as the climate warms.

“In addition to deceases in lakes that have cisco, the lakes that still have cisco have also seen a pretty remarkable decrease in population.  Right now, we only have a handful of lakes where cisco populations are considered high or very high.  The majority of the lakes actually have moderate to low populations,” said Madeline Magee, the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Monitoring Coordinator for the DNR.

Cisco rely on plenty of oxygen in cool waters.

Climate change tends to warm the water, and more precipitation creates more runoff, sending more phosphorus into lakes and eventually depleting oxygen.

The DNR's Madeline Magee.
Credit ResearchGate

“What we’re worried about with climate change is as you increase air temperatures and as we have increased precipitation events, the number of times we have these fish kill events will actually increase,” Magee said.

Magee is even worried about extirpations, or local extinctions, of some species.

That attitude puts her in the same mindset of many naturalists and scientists at this virtual convention.

As they watched their screens, they were preparing to watch Wisconsin change around them.

“Things are changing here in a big way on the landscape,” said David.

The convention was hosted by UW-Stevens Point and UW-Extension Lakes.