Audubon Society ecologist to address conservation of birds in the face of climate change

October 28, 2014

Chad Wilsey once spent his days at the head of the classroom, teaching the wonders of biology to students in middle and high school.

Today he watches biology unfold in landscapes across America and works to intervene, modeling environmental change as a spatial ecologist with the National Audubon Society.

“I decided that instead of talking about biology, I wanted to be doing it,” he says.

Wilsey is an alumnus of the Nelson Institute, having earned a master’s degree in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development in 2005, who returns to campus Nov. 17 to deliver a free public lecture. He will share the results and implications of a recent National Audubon Society analysis that suggests climate change is the biggest conservation threat facing North American birds.

Audubon Society ecologist Chad Wilsey
Chad Wilsey (M.S. '05 CBSD)

In advance of his visit, Wilsey spoke with the Nelson Institute about his career and what he’ll discuss in Madison.  

Could you share a bit about your work at the National Audubon Society? 

I'm on the national science team and work on large-scale projects – things like thinking about the impacts of climate change or land use change. I do a lot of spatial modeling and statistical analysis that looks at broad-scale changes and how they impact birds across the United States.  

What do you especially enjoy about this work?

I really enjoy the science, because it's an opportunity to work on large-scale projects that impact entire regions or the entire United States. But I think the part I most enjoy is that I’m part of a larger organization, interacting with people who are taking the science and putting it into action, whether through conservation or public outreach and education.

What do you plan to discuss in Madison in November, and what do you hope audience members take from your lecture?

I’ll be giving a talk on Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change report, which we released in September. Along with releasing the report, we also released a new website where you can interact with some of the findings. So I’ll be walking the audience through what we found.

We took more than 40 years of bird observations and used that to characterize the climatic conditions most suitable for each species. We then used projections of future climate to estimate how climate change is going to impact the distribution of each of those species.

We found that nearly half of the bird species in North America are likely to be severely threatened by climate change or global warming. This could have really severe implications –contractions of species’ ranges or perhaps extinction.

But we also want to say that there are things we can do today. One of the great outputs of this work is that we can think about the future and look across the continent or look across a state like Wisconsin and identify places that are going to be suitable for birds, both today and into the future. So we can focus our conservation efforts on those areas, which we're calling climate strongholds.   

Were you involved with preparing this report? 

My main role was to take some of the research outputs and summarize them into the report, doing some of the writing as well as creating some of the visual presentations like the one that I’ll be giving in November to describe the science.

Was there anything that struck you as especially critical or caught you by surprise?

Wilsey will discuss the
conservation of birds
in the face of climate
change at a free public
lecture Nov. 17
.

Well, that topline message – that nearly half the bird species in North America, at least of the 588 species that we were able to model, are likely to be severely impacted by climate change, is a pretty significant number in itself. But what really strikes me is we included a number of different scenarios for future climate change and that proportion of species is impacted even under a low climate change scenario. So it's really imperative that we work to reduce the impacts and rate of climate change.

Have the findings of the report in any way shifted the direction of your work or of the organization as a whole? 

I wouldn't necessarily describe it as a shift, but more as a new complement – a new pillar in what we're focusing on as an organization. The hope is that climate change science will diffuse throughout the organization and become integral in the conservation, outreach and education work we're doing. 

Thinking back on your experience at UW-Madison, is there anything you remember especially fondly about your time in Madison and as a student of the Nelson Institute, or how the experience helped shape your career?

I grew up in Wisconsin, so it was always a dream of mine to study at UW-Madison. It was something that I had always wanted to be a part of – the tradition and the experience. I met my wife in Madison, so obviously we talk about Madison a lot. Wherever we've lived, we always compare it to Madison and remember how great it was – the city and State Street and the university, the diversity, and all the exciting things going on.

At the Nelson Institute, I really had a great experience. Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development was perfect for me because it was an interdisciplinary program. I was interested in taking my background in biology and applying it toward conservation. I was also interested in how can we support economic development while being conscientious and making good choices that are going to conserve our natural resources. Still today, I feel like the degree brings perspective to my work.