Twelve years ago Ron Joseph, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the time, was on the fence about climate change and did not think there had been enough data collected. Then he started seeing the canaries in the coal mine — almost literally.

Joseph, who kept tabs on bird species he observed in Maine, started noticing an influx of southern birds that were not common this far north.

“I started to see a number of southern bird species showing up in bigger and bigger numbers,” Joseph said. “What the birds are telling us is that climate change is undeniable.”

However, it isn’t just the birds anymore that are changing due to climate change, Joseph told a group at the Belfast Free Library at a talk sponsored by Belfast Bay Watershed Watch on Thursday, May 17. Joseph has degrees in zoology and wildlife ecology and worked for the USFW for around 30 years and then for the state of Maine for three years, but has since retired.

The effects of a warming climate could drastically alter the landscape of Maine and the organisms that call it home. The first indicators were the birds. They now return to Maine 10 days earlier than they did 50 years ago, said Joseph. However, other species are starting to show signs of distress.

Invasive species have been moving in, taking over the habitat once filled by native species, Joseph said. Green crabs are moving north, as are fisher weasels, and small mouth bass are moving into areas once dominated by brook trout. The trend toward non-native species will continue, Joseph said, because “nature doesn’t like a vacuum.”

Boreal forest

One of the largest and most noticeable changes caused by global warming will be the migration of the boreal forest, said Jospeh. Around 90 percent of Maine is forested and is part of a huge forest system that spans from the Atlantic to the Pacific and stretches north into Canada.

By the end of the century 65 percent of the forest, which consists mostly of spruce, pine and fir trees, will be gone from Maine. It will be replaced by species found in southern New England like oak, hickory and walnut, said Joseph.

The warm winters will also increase the survival rate for spruce bugworm, which can be devastating to the native spruce and fir forests, said Joseph. The last major outbreak occurred in the 1970s, and its effects can still be seen.

Charismatic creatures

Some of Maine’s most charismatic organisms will also be hurt by the changing climate, Joseph said. Animals like lynx, moose and black bears will face difficulties as the winters warm.

Lynx have specially evolved feet to travel easily through deep snow, explained Joseph. When there is diminished snowpack coyotes can out-compete the lynx, making it difficult for lynx to find food.

The warm winters will also lead to an increased tick population, said Joseph. Ticks can spread diseases and are especially dangerous to young moose. Joseph cited a 2008 study conducted in New Hampshire that said 70 percent of moose calf deaths were caused by ticks. The moose gather so many ticks that they can become anemic. In fact states like New York, New Hampshire and Vermont are worried they could lose their moose altogether.

Bears are also at risk from an invasive insect. The bears rely heavily on beechnuts, said Joseph; however, beech trees are being threatened by an invasive European insect.


The acceptable level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is around 350 ppm. It currently has a concentration of 396 ppm and rising, said Joseph. However, recent polls of the scientific community show around 97 percent agree that climate change is happening, but only 55 percent of the public think it is real.

“I don’t think scientists communicate enough with the public,” Joseph said. “That is why I do these talks now to say it is real, it is happening.”