This blog post originally appeared on our Rockies Expeditions blog on September 5th. Our 2013 Spine of the Rockies Expedition is investigating Large Landscape Conservation through methods of visual and social media while connecting to the Rocky Mountain Region’s strong ties to outdoor recreation and wild spaces. For more on the expedition, visit: www.RockiesExpeditions.org
Glacier National Park encompasses some of the most diverse wildlife populations in North America. As the name implies, the park is home to a number of glaciers, which play a crucial role in the region’s ecology. It also is one of the few areas that boasts a full range of large mammals including grizzly and black bears, lynx, wolverines, wolves,mountain goats, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and elk. With over 200 million visits annually, Glacier National Park is the eleventh most visited National Park in the U.S., contributing substantially to the surrounding economies. However, steadily increasing temperatures have caused its glaciers to melt at alarming rates. Currently only 25 of the 37 named glaciers in the park remain, and it is projected that by 2030 all of the glaciers in the park will be gone. As a result, Glacier is one of the most vulnerable national parks in the face of climate change. Warming temperatures and retreating glaciers will continue to impact wildlife and will also prove to have significant economic effects on the region. Peter Aengst of the Wilderness Society states:
“Just one example of how climate change is impacting the Crown of the Continent is in Glacier National Park where the modeling and the science suggests that all of the glaciers there will be gone in literally less than 20 years and the park formally known as “Glacier National Park” will have no glaciers.”
Effects on plants and wildlife:
Hiking through a range of elevations in Glacier, one cannot help but recognize the diversity of wildlife that flourishes throughout the park. From lush low elevation forests and thriving elk populations to high alpine ecosystems scattered with mountain goats and pika, the interconnectedness of the various habitats is a defining characteristic of the park. In the face of climate change, the effects of warming temperatures and a loss in precipitation will continue to be felt throughout all connected ecosystems in the park.
Warming temperatures have not only caused glaciers to retreat and disappear, but have also caused changes in annual snowfall and spring runoff patterns. Increased temperatures and drier summers have resulted in stressed forests characterized by upward moving tree lines and encroaching grasslands. At higher elevations where an increase in temperature is most pronounced, native plant populations that are adapted to the altitude and cold temperatures may be unable to survive the change. Furthermore, increased temperatures have already proven to correlate with an upward moving tree line and encroaching grasslands, which can force out native alpine tundra plant species. The loss of high alpine meadows combined with the upward trend in tree growth has the ability to change the integrity of native ecosystems and alter the high elevation scenery for which the park is so famous. Lastly, warmer temperatures have also proven to support an increase in invasive species and insect outbreaks, which can have grave effects on plant and tree species, specifically at subalpine elevations.
A loss of habitat and an increase in non-native species are indicative of a warming climate. Many key species in Glacier, such as wolverines, lynx, and pika rely on cool high elevation climates for survival. Decreased snowpack has proven to be particularly detrimental to wolverine and lynx populations, which rely on snow cover for denning sites and food sources. In the case of the pika, which is unable to survive at temperatures over 80 degrees, a warming climate will have detrimental effects on their populations. Coldwater fish species, most notably native westslope cutthroat and bull trout populations will also be impacted as water temperatures rise and spring snowmelt decreases. Bull trout are particularly sensitive to increased water temperatures and roughly 90% of bull trout populations are projected to be lost as a result of warming temperatures. Gary Tabor, founder of the Center for Large Landscape Conservation explained:
“Glacier National Park, a park named for its unique asset, is going to lose all of its Glaciers in the next fifty years. The glaciers are the storage buffer for water, and the water that comes from those glaciers keeps the western landscape alive. It will have a cascading impact because so many species and habitats have adapted to having water at a certain time of year and in a certain quantity, and now that’s all gone. So many species, including us humans, will be left high and dry.”
Economic effects on the region:
The effects of climate change are also projected to impact land use and recreation policies in the park, which will have a subsequent impact on the local economy. Glacier contributes approximately $150 million to Montana’s economy each year and supports roughly 3,200 jobs in the state. In addition to Montana, Glacier also generates substantial revenue for neighboring states as well as areas in Canada. As the glaciers continue to retreat and disappear, it is likely that fewer people will continue to return to the park. Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada conducted a study on the effects of glacier loss and found that 19% of visitors would not return to the park and 37% would return less when given a description of how the park’s landscape would be affected by climate change.
Aside from the aesthetic aspects of the melting glaciers, the resulting impacts on plants and wildlife could result in trail closures and a ban on fishing in certain areas. Moreover, as the ecosystems become increasingly fragile and wildfires become more frequent, there is a risk that human visitation may become severely limited in specific areas to protect the local species.
The effects of climate change are already obvious within Glacier and continue to threaten the ecological health of the region. In an environment where the climate is likely to continue warming in the near term, it is crucial that both Glacier National Park and the surrounding ecosystems in the Crown of the Continent continue to be managed in a way mitigates these changes and focuses on plant and wildlife health and connectivity.
Facts from “Glacier National Park in Peril. The Threats of Climate Disruption.” Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. For more information please visit: http://www.rockymountainclimate.org/images/GlacierInPeril_full.pdf
Halsey Landon is a Field Researcher with the State of the Rockies Project
Photos by Halsey Landon and Alex Suber