Archive | Northern Rockies

Climate change and Greater Yellowstone fire regimes

Last week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  included a compelling article by western fire researcher Tony Westerling and colleagues. The title, “Continued warming could transform Greater Yellowstone fire regimes by mid-21st century,” caught the attention of a lot of blogs and other media outlets.

Westerling and his co-authors modeled changing fire regimes in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem  by looking at past correlations between climate data and the size and occurrence of large fires, then projecting those trends forward to see how often fire could be expected to burn a given area under likely future climate conditions. Today the Greater Yellowstone area is dominated by conifer forests that are characterized by infrequent but severe fires. Every 100-300 years or so, major fires sweep through these ecosystems, killing a large proportion of trees in the affected area and starting the succession process over by providing shade-sensitive species with access to sunlight.

However, this new research suggests that an increase in temperatures of just a few degrees by mid-century could have profound effects both on patterns of fire in the Yellowstone area and on the ecosystems and species found there. All of the modeling results pointed to a more rapid fire cycle, with a given area burning every 30 years or less by 2050. As Westerling et al. point out, this kind of fire regime would also indicate a significant shift from the current mixed conifer forest type to something much different, something more like a dry woodland or unforested ecosystem. Such a complete shift in vegetation would obviously have dire impacts on many of the species that currently inhabit that area.

When we talk about helping ecosystems adapt to climate change, we often tend to imagine – and plan for – a gradual, almost imperceptible shift in conditions over long periods of time. But many scientists have shown that ecological systems can contain hidden transition points, thresholds beyond which rapid, extreme changes  in ecosystem structure and function may be unavoidable and virtually irreversible. Westerling’s paper shows us is in quite vivid terms what ecological thresholds might look like on the ground, and it gives us a frightening glimpse of how soon climate change might start pushing us across these thresholds. How would we go about managing the transition to an unforested Yellowstone?

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife, National Forests, Northern Rockies, Public Lands, Uncategorized0 Comments

An End to Feeding on the Elk Refuge

The National Elk Refuge in Wyoming is an incredible resource for wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Unfortunately, a supplemental feeding program, in place since the refuge was created in 1912, has become a severe hazard to the species it was intended to help.

Though it began as a way to sustain the elk population through difficult winters, persistent feeding year after year now draws high concentrations of elk and bison to the area, resulting in crowding and overgrazing, and ultimately damaging the health of the ecosystem and the herds. Of particular concern is the potential for disease to spread through the high-density gathering area.  Both brucellosis and chronic wasting disease are risks increased by the refuge feeding lines.

Defenders was part of a coalition of conservation organizations challenging a 2007 management plan for the elk and bison, which failed to provide a timeline for ending the feeding regime.  The plan also appeared to give illegal veto power to the state of Wyoming such that the Game and Fish Department could block a decision to end supplemental feeding if it was believed to harm local interests.

This week, a federal appeals court confirmed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) obligation to end the practice. While the ruling did not order a deadline for terminating the program, it was an important affirmation of FWS’s obligation to expedite the end of feeding. The ruling unequivocally states that “there is no doubt that unmitigated continuation of supplemental feeding would undermine the conservation purpose of the National Wildlife Refuge System.” In addition, the court rejected the possibility of Wyoming being able to veto FWS action.

Posted in In the Field, National Wildlife Refuges, Northern Rockies, Public Lands0 Comments

Pronghorn buck by William Dunmire

Treasuring a Wildlife Landscape in Wyoming

The Wyoming Department of Transportation just announced it is spending the state’s general transportation funding on an important series of highway overpasses and underpasses that will reduce collisions between deer, antelope and cars along a busy highway near Pinedale, Wyoming.  This is one part of what I see as one of the most successful examples of a cross-jurisdictional effort to save a landscape scale wildlife need – a migration corridor.

Although there are about 2 million pronghorn antelope in the United States, some herds are more important than others, in particular the herd of a few hundred (and growing) pronghorn that migrate 150 miles every spring into Grand Teton National Park, across a complicated mix of private, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and National Park land.

In 2008, the U.S. Forest Service made history by designating the first National Forest ‘Wildlife Corridor’ to make management of the pronghorn’s migratory corridor a higher priority for Bridger-Teton National Forest.  “This migration is an important part of Wyoming’s history and we want to do all we can to maintain it,” said Kniffy Hamilton, Bridger Teton National Forest Supervisor.

In 2009, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation made a 5-year commitment to help fund the reduction of fence barriers to pronghorn movement on private and BLM lands in the area.

In 2010, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and WalMart, in partnership with The Conservation Fund and Wyoming Department of Game and Fish made the corridor a priority, by funding an easement on Carney Ranch that will keep a key bottleneck in the pronghorn migration route undeveloped and another 19,000 acres of nearby pronghorn habitat was also protected.

Now Wyoming Department of Transportation has let a contract to begin construction of a series of wildlife overpasses and underpasses that will allow the pronghorn to continue their migration without causing accidents and risking human lives on Highway 191.  Once completed, the highway will no longer have the potential to disrupt a many thousand year old migration path of pronghorn and mule deer.

When the Administration rolls out its ‘America’s Great Outdoors’ initiative in January 2011, one measure of its success will be whether we see more collaborative successes like the efforts that have gone into conserving the Path of the Pronghorn.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Northern Rockies0 Comments

photo of what the wildlife crossing at I-70 might look like

A new design for Nature?

photo of what the wildlife crossing at I-70 might look like

One finalist's design for the I-70 wildlife crossing

Earlier this week, the ARC International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition unveiled the five finalist designs for a next generation wildlife crossing, to be built at West Vail Pass on I-70 in Colorado.  This first-ever international competition asked designers from all over the world to imagine solutions to the age-old problem of moving wildlife across the landscape while keeping them out of harm’s way on our highways.

Five finalists were chosen from 36 team submissions from nine countries, representing more than 100 firms worldwide.  The finalists showed great innovation and creativity, including the use of an inverted arc shape that creates a valley floating above the highway.  One design team chose laminated timber for building material, rather than concrete and steel.  Another design incorporates a bright red bridge to attract the interest of drivers as they pass under, yet remain unremarkable to color-blind mammals as they pass over.

“Collectively, the designs have the capacity to transform what we think of as possible,” said Jane Wernick, ARC juror and structural engineer, director of Jane Wernick Associates, London.

The five designs are now available for public viewing at http://www.arc-competition.com/finalists.php. The winning design team will be announced at the Transportation Research Board 90th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC on January 23, 2011.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Northern Rockies0 Comments

Photo of the Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation with the black-footed ferrets they are about to release

Black-footed Ferrets Find a New Home

Last week I witnessed an endangered species success story first hand.  I ventured out to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in eastern Montana to see a few lucky black-footed ferret kits off to their new home.  With fewer than 1,000 in the wild, black-footed ferrets are one of the most endangered animals in North America. They feed on prairie dogs and live in prairie dog burrows, and the decline of prairie dogs has led to their precarious state.

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is helping bring black-footed ferrets back from the brink. Tribal representatives – along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and a group of students from the Boys and Girls Club in nearby Lame Deer, MT – gathered to release the thirteen ferret kits.  The kits, which were the third group to be released on the reservation, arrived from the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in northern Colorado, where the species is bred in captivity.  The release took place at four separate prairie dog towns on the reservation.  Excitement filled the faces of kids and adults alike as the first ferret scurried into the nearest prairie dog hole.

Photo of the Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation with the black-footed ferrets they are about to release

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe began reintroducing black-footed ferrets in 2008. As part of that effort, Tribal authorities granted protection from all prairie dog shooting and poisoning on 10,000 acres of land. Defenders of Wildlife donated $10,000 to assist with this initial protective effort.

As is the case with most of the other 18 black-footed ferret reintroduction sites across the west, there is a catch. Sylvatic plague, an exotic disease to which both prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets have little to no immunity, threatens to undo the hard restoration work. Plague struck many of Northern Cheyenne’s prairie dog towns last year. But the tribe fought back by dusting many active prairie dog burrows to kill the fleas that carry plague. It seemed to work, and now black-footed ferret restoration continues with last week’s ferret releases.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, In the Field, Northern Rockies1 Comment


dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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