Climate change threatens Yellowstone region: report

A warming climate is imperiling the iconic wildlife and landscapes in the Yellowstone National Park region, two environmental groups said in a study.

The report, Greater Yellowstone in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption, by Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and Greater Yellowstone Coalition released on Tuesday shows temperatures in the past decade in the Yellowstone area have exceeded the rate of warming worldwide compared to the 20th Century average. The last decade was the greater Yellowstone region’s hottest on record.

The study’s findings show that temperatures over the past 10 years were 1.4 degrees above the region’s 20th century average. Summers, in particular, averaged 2.3 degrees higher than summers in the past century.

And if worldwide emissions of heat-trapping gases are not reduced, the warming will continue with disastrous effects, Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, said Tuesday. Left unchecked, climate change is likely to transform the greater Yellowstone area, which includes parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana and encompasses two national parks, six national forests and three wildlife refuges, the report said.

The 55-page study predicts that if we do nothing to stem greenhouse gases, within 60 to 90 years, summers in Yellowstone National Park could average 9.7 degrees higher than today’s temperatures. A temperature increase of that magnitude would “totally transform the ecosystem and the experience for people visiting Yellowstone National Park in the summer,” Saunders said.

The study is the first of its kind demonstrating global warming impacts on the Yellowstone region, including Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and several designated national wildlife areas, its authors said.

Though the authors did not design new climate models for their study, they drew “the best of what’s already known” from a variety of larger studies, Saunders said.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is a conservation organization that works to protect the lands, waters and wildlife of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization is a nonprofit working to reduce climate disruption and its impact on the interior West. The Yellowstone National Park region is one of the world's last largely intact temperate ecosystems.

Warming in the area could increase the frequency and severity of wildfires, strip forests of moisture-dependent trees such as aspen, lower water in mountain streams with world-class trout fisheries and damage areas vital to threatened species such as grizzly bears, the study suggests.

"Threads are already being pulled out of the glorious tapestry that is the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and it has lost some of its luster," said Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and a lead author of the report. "It's up to us to preserve this marvelous, magical place for future generations."

Environmentalists say a worst-case projection shows summertime temperatures at Yellowstone National Park soaring by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2099, according to an analysis in the report of government weather data and modeling by top climate scientists. "That would mean future summers as hot as the Los Angeles metropolitan area have been in recent years," Saunders said in a telephone news conference.

yellowstone wildlifeThe effects of climate change will be felt particularly by the region’s world-renowned wildlife (left), said Scott Christensen, GYC’s climate change program director and one of the study’s authors. Grizzly bears, pronghorn, big horn sheep and four native species of cutthroat trout are vulnerable to warming effects, he said.

Another concern is the loss of forests, which cover about 83 percent of the region, Saunders said, noting that the effects of climate change are already visible in the large-scale die-off of white bark pines due to an infestation of pine bark beetles. The beetles tree dieoffthrive in warmer weather and favor older trees that take 60 to 80 years to mature.

The sweltering summers and dry winters would be devastating to already ailing alpine trees such as whitebark pines, which produce nuts a mainstay in the diet of Yellowstone's grizzlies, and rare, snow-dependent animals such as the Canada lynx, said Saunders, former deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Interior Department.

GYC hopes the study will provide science to guide the organization’s future decisions regarding Yellowstone Park GYC plans to look into reducing stressors for wildlife, attending to water quality and quantity, protecting wildlife migration corridors and developing academic resources.

The report, which relied on peer-reviewed research by government and university scientists, should serve as a wake-up call about the Yellowstone area, said Scott Christensen, climate director with the Montana-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition and co-author of the study.

Federal agencies can also play a role. The National Park Service has “a unique opportunity to capture the attention of American people” by adopting more sustainable practices and showcasing them to educate the throngs of park visitors each year, Saunders said.

And, the authors noted, the report’s predictions do not take into account any legislation designed to reduce emissions.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to avoid the worst scenarios,” Christensen said. But it will take collaboration between wildlife services, nonprofits and private landowners, particularly as conditions change.

Failing to reverse the trend could damage the region's $700 million annual tourism economy, the authors added.

Reuters,"Climate change threatens Yellowstone region: report", accessed September 29, 2011
Bozeman Daily Chronicle,"Study: Yellowstone region records hottest decade ever, on pace for disastrous warming effects by the end of the century",by Jodi Hausen, accessed September 29, 2011


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