Montana is barometer for climate change with species such as grizzlies, wolverines, lynx and moose as important indicators

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Dr. Dan Tyers, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, recently (17 November 2009) discussed at a U.S. Forest Service International Programs Seminar the impacts of climate change on large wildlife in southwest Montana. Tyers stated that both Montana wildlife and its unique environment provide a barometer for a changing world. With the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s long park history, huge expanse of protected land and exceptional wildlife, it is a “natural laboratory for the long-term monitoring of climate change,” stated Tyers.  

Tyers’s seminar discussed his observations from monitoring forest habitats in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness—a protected area of more than 1 million acres in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. For the past 25 years, Tyers and his crews have been monitoring this ecosystem’s vulnerable and captivating species such as grizzlies, wolverines, moose, lynx and wolves.

What Tyers has found is that many of these animals are inextricably linked to an environment being affected by climate change. High elevation environments are experiencing quicker changes as temperatures climb. Wolverines which are dependent on snowy habitats are seeing their terrain shrink.

A vital component of the grizzly bear’s environment (within the Yellowstone area) is also under threat: Whitebark pine trees are now dying from disease. Previously, cold winters kept pine bark beetles from thriving; with rising temperatures, it’s flourishing and rapidly killing these trees. Whitebark pine seeds are crucial to Yellowstone grizzlies as their diet heavily depends on them.  

Moose within the Yellowstone region are also being affected as climate rapidly changes. Mature fir forests provide moose with abundant easy to find food. Warmer temperatures, generating dryer conditions, makes these forests vulnerable—especially to more frequent or intense wildfires. 

Dense stands of young timber are important to the snowshoe hare. Hares prefer these forests because they provide cover from predators. Within these ranges, snowshoe hares thrive, reaching larger numbers. The lynx, like grizzlies and whitebark pines, is linked to the snowshoe hare, which is an important food source. It is unclear if snowshoe hares will adapt to less snowfall and a changing environment, and how, in turn, this will impact the lynx.   

“As I watch trends, there is a sense of hopelessness,” remarked Tyers. From his local perspective, he believes that practical management measures can be implemented to help these magnificent creatures survive. However, he stated policies must be implemented at a national level to curb these environmental trends. 

 

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