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The New West: Climate change already altering Yellowstone

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CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

One of the most reliably stimulating reads about Mother Nature in Greater Yellowstone is a journal that few Americans have ever heard of.

It isn’t found on newsstands. But here you can still obtain a copy, free of charge, of what was perhaps the most important edition of Yellowstone Science published in its 23-year history.

A special issue of Yellowstone Science titled “Ecological Implications of Climate Change on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” came out last year and it carries added impact now that mercury readings are about to soar again in the West.

If you’re expecting to find sensationalized warnings about the ecological transformation headed this way, you may be disappointed. The opening headline accompanying a guest editorial from Yellowstone National Park climate specialist Ann Rodman carries just five words: “Fear is Not the Answer.”

And yet, in addition to drawing upon the insights of noted researchers Bill Romme and Monica Turner who have been studying Yellowstone for decades, there is this assessment from the normally restrained Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. He calls climate change “the greatest threat we have to the integrity of our natural resources.”

Gripping about this edition of Yellowstone Science, which chronicles significant changes already taking place from human burning of fossil fuels, is that it corroborates the conclusions of a report commissioned recently by Jackson-based Charture Institute and the Teton Research Institute of Teton Science Schools.

Authored by Corinna Riginos and Mark Newcomb (also a Teton County, Wyoming commissioner), it is provocatively titled “The Coming Climate: Ecological and Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Teton County” and it predicts our ancestors two generations hence likely having to contend with altered landscapes that we find hard to imagine.

In fact, both reports render the concerns currently being expressed by some funhogs—about whether there’ll be enough powder to support 100 skier days in 40 years—to be shallow, callow, and myopic.

Looking ahead to the middle of this century, and knowing that irreversible carbon loading in the atmosphere is set in place, Romme and Turner note, “It is sobering to realize if little or nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the magnitude of temperature increase over the course of the current century could well be approaching the range of temperature change that occurred at the glacial to Holocene transition—implying a potential for major ecological change.”

How major? Picture 80 percent of Yellowstone being left unforested from wildfires and drying out of terrain. Bellwether species such as aspen, Douglas fir and whitebark pine are now in retreat from extended drought and insect predators flourishing with rising temperatures.

As scientist Mike Tercek observes in writing about snowpack, “a seemingly small change in average temperature can have big effects.” Of 30 sites monitored in Greater Yellowstone over the last half century, 21 have recorded significant declines in snow depth.

Already, too, generally warmer and slightly drier winters, coupled with hotter summer temperatures and shifts in rain have resulted in vanishing wetlands (which provide important habitat for a range of species from amphibians to birds and moose). Some 38 percent of all Yellowstone plants are associated with wetlands and 70 percent of Wyoming’s bird species, yet wetlands constitute just 3 percent of the landscape.

Some experts say it means that riparian corridors will be valued at an even higher premium value for wildlife as critters pressed harder to find water congregate in these richest zones of habitat.

At the same time that some species wink out, others might benefit and broaden their ranges up mountain slopes.

Romme and Turner warn of certain ecozones in Greater Yellowstone moving past defensible tipping points. They say this region, if it can remain relatively insulated from development and human incursion, could provide essential refugia, vital in keeping wildlife populations alive if rapid—and possibly epic—shifts unfold.

“Despite the big changes that now seem imminent, the future is not necessarily bleak,” they write.

Together, Yellowstone Science and the Jackson Hole report “The Coming Climate” are certain to spark more questions than answers.

Even Pope Francis, with the release last summer of his groundbreaking encyclical letter on climate change, “Care for Our Common Home,” is making a moral case for heeding science.

Columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of  “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek—An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” (available at featuring 150 amazing photographs by Thomas D. Mangelsen. Look for Wilkinson’s profile of Yellowstone National Park Supt. Dan Wenk in the forthcoming summer edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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