Merlot vs. moose: Global warming pits wine against wildlife

Global warming could lead to increased competition for land between wine grape growers and wildlife, with potentially disastrous results, scientists say.

Merlot or moose?

Wine aficionados and wildlife lovers could soon butt heads as global warming forces vineyard owners to look for new, ecologically sensitive areas to grow their succulent grapes.

"Climate change is going to move potential wine-producing regions all over the map. These global changes put the squeeze on wildlife and nature's capacity to sustain human life in some surprising places," said Lee Hannah, an ecologist with Conservation International and lead author of a study analyzing the impacts of climate change on wine production and conservation.

"Climate change will set up competition for land between agricultural and wildlife — wine grapes are but one example. This could have disastrous results for wildlife," added co-author Rebecca Shaw, a climate scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

The study, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes that as global temperatures rise, the area suitable for grape-growing will shrink dramatically by 2050 in many traditional wine-producing regions, including the Bordeaux and Rhone valley regions in France, and Tuscany in Italy. Meanwhile, other cooler or higher-elevation areas, like the northern U.S., mountainous parts of China and northern Europe, will become increasingly sought after by vineyard owners as they search for the climatic conditions that are ideal for growing wine grapes.

That script, if played out, could put winemakers and wildlife on a collision course, as shown in a narrated video by the Environmental Defense Fund.

According to the study, the greatest area of increasing wine production suitability is in the Rocky Mountains near the Canada-U.S. border. The area is hardly a traditional wine-growing region, but a few degrees of warmth could make it a hotspot — and that could encroach on land used by the grizzly bear, moose, gray wolf, pronghorn and other species, researchers say.

"Right now you're looking at open ranch land which can be quite friendly to wildlife movement," Hannah told National Geographic. "But if you start getting vineyards put in that area, bears would love to come in and eat wine grapes and browsers will eat the vines. So that's a concern for the growers, and if vineyards are fenced or animals shot, a potential barrier to wildlife movement."

Vineyards already dot nearby areas of the Columbia River basin in eastern Washington, the Snake River Valley of Idaho and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. Expansion to the U.S.-Canada border area could complicate efforts by the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a joint Canada-U.S. organization, to preserve and maintain the wildlife and native plants in the region, the researchers say.

Another area of concern is China, where wine consumption is soaring and winemaking is emerging. Vineyard expansion in the central mountainous part of the country could endanger the sensitive habitat of the giant panda, the study says.

Other species whose habitat could be affected by wine-growing changes include the Iberian lynx in upslope areas of the Pyrenees and owls, freshwater frogs and toads in Chile.

So what to do about the competing interests?

Hannah suggested to National Geographic that China might be able to use a current forest buyback program to purchase panda habitat that is also zoned for vineyard use. "If the industry can plan with conservation, there are ways both wine and wildlife can win," he told the magazine.

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More generally, the scientists recommend:

  • Joint planning of vineyard expansion between business managers and conservationists to avoid areas of high environmental importance.
  • Investment in new varieties of grapes that offer similar flavors but with altered climate tolerances.
  • Consumer awareness by purchasing bottles with natural cork, and buying from vineyards that adopt sustainable practices.

Some such collaborative action is already under way.

In South Africa, the World Wildlife Fund has established a Biodiversity & Wine Initiative, a partnership between the wine industry and the conservation sector to protect wildlife in the Cape Winelands region and to encourage sustainable farming.

In the U.S., California has a Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance that promotes vineyard and winery practices that are sensitive to the environment.

Though world wine production dipped last year, the wine industry remains a multibillion-dollar business and the U.S. is the largest wine-consuming nation. Total wine sales in the U.S. in 2012 from all production sources — domestic and foreign — reached a record of 360.1 million 9-liter cases with an estimated retail value of $34.6 billion, according to wine industry figures.

Wine isn't the only commodity that could take a hit. Global warming could impact the chocolate industry as well. A recent report, citing research by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said the amount of suitable land in major cocoa-growing regions could halve by 2050.

(Bill Gates is the chairman of Microsoft Corp. Microsoft publishes MSN News.)

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