A national park as big as Yellowstone, which spans 2.2 million acres, can be hard to get your head around, so to speak. The landscape is so sprawling and rugged, dotted with lakes, lifted up by mountains, cut down by rivers, and covered in forest.
And within that landscape reside hundreds of species, from blotched tiger salamanders and boreal chorus frogs to elk, bison, and, of course, wolves and grizzly bears. And don't overlook the myriad plant, bird, and aquatic species.
Multiply that landscape by roughly nine, to 18 or 20 million acres, depending upon whom you ask, and you have the size of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, an incredibly rugged and beautiful swath of mountains, lakes, rivers and forest that includes not just Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks but also seven national forests: the Targhee, Beaverhead, Custer, Gallatin, Shoshone, Teton, and Bridger-Teton.
This ecosystem, considered by some to be "one of the largest 'intact' ecosystems remaining in the temperate zones of the world," is rich in biological life. But that ecosystem with its diversity of life is among the top 10 in the country whose species are greatly threatened by global warming associated with climate change, according to a report issued last week.
Across this landscape the early effects of climate change already are being noticed. According to research in Yellowstone, the growing season has lengthened by two weeks in recent decades. One result of that is that willows in the park are growing at three times the average rate noted in the 1980s, according to the 2010 issue of Yellowstone Resources and Issues.
That might not be such a bad thing if you're an elk or moose that feeds on willows, but the conditions that allow for such rapid growth might not be equally conducive for other species in Yellowstone.
As climate change progresses, the Western interior is expected to get both hotter and drier, leading to problems for such species as trout that can't long endure warming streams, and whitebark pine, a keystone forest species that provides food for grizzlies, squirrels, and other species but which is defenseless against invasions of mountain pine beetles that warming temperatures are allowing to move higher in elevation and into the realm of the whitebark pine.
“As whitebark pine goes, so goes the GYE,” says Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It is THE foundational species that everything else in the system relies upon---from wildlife, to the snowpack we rely on for drinking water. And climate change has already opened the door to more than 80 percent of our whitebark forests disappearing. Despite all the foot-dragging in D.C., we can already see the impact of climate change in the red trees taking over Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.”
Ecosystems named in It’s Getting Hot Out There: Top 10 Places to Save for Endangered Species in a Warming World, prepared by the coalition with input from such diverse groups as Save our Wild Salmon, Audubon, Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, and others, encompass a number of national parks. Along with Yellowstone and Grand Teton, such National Park System units as Virgin Islands National Park, Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Padre Island National Seashore, and Everglades National Park fall within the top 10 endangered ecosystems the groups named.
The top 10 ecosystems to save for endangered species featured in the report:
1. The Arctic Sea Ice, home to the polar bear, Pacific walrus and at least 6 species of seal.
2. Shallow Water Coral Reefs, home to the critically endangered elkhorn and staghorn coral.
3. The Hawaiian Islands, home to more than a dozen imperiled birds, and 319 threatened and endangered plants.
4. Southwest Deserts, home to numerous imperiled plants, fish, and mammals.
5. The San Francisco Bay-Delta, home to the imperiled Pacific salmon, Swainson’s hawk, tiger salamander and Delta smelt.
6. California Sierra Mountains, home to 30 native species of amphibian, including the Yellow-legged frog.
7. The Snake River Basin, home to four imperiled runs of salmon and steelhead.
8. Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, home to the imperiled Whitebark pine, an important food source for animals, including the threatened Grizzly bear.
9. The Gulf Coast’s flatlands and wetlands, home to the Piping and Snowy plovers, Mississippi sandhill crane, and numerous species of sea turtles.
10. The Greater Everglades, home to 67 threatened and endangered species, including the manatee and the red cockcaded woodpecker.
“Climate change is no longer a distant threat on the horizon,” said Leda Huta, the executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition that released the report. “It has arrived and is threatening ecosystems that we all depend upon, and our endangered species are particularly vulnerable.”
Within these ecosystems are many species already listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. In Yellowstone, for example, the lynx is a threatened species, the grizzly bear is listed as endangered, and the wolverine has just been identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a species in need of ESA help. In Virgin Islands and Biscayne national parks staghorn and elkhorn corals are endangered species, and in the Sierra parks the mountain yellow-legged frog is endangered.
The point of the report is that to save these species, their surrounding ecosystems need to be protected from climate change.
The report is not vastly different from one the Endangered Species Coalition released in December 2009. That report highlighted ten plant, fish, animal, and bird species deemed to be the "hottest" species imperiled by climate change. And similar reports were issued earlier in 2009 from the National Parks Conservation Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Ms. Huta said the new report was deemed necessary to not just reinforce the plights endangered and threatened species themselves face from climate change, but to stress how entire ecosystems and their residents could be affected.
"I realized in talking to scientists that people have really been focusing on species like the polar bear and the walrus and these Arctic species and what’s happening in the Arctic, but there are these incredible, dangerous impacts happening around the country,” she said Wednesday during a telephone conversation from her Washington, D.C., office.
“Not enough attention is being paid to those ecosystems. We could lose large numbers of endangered species if those ecosystems are seriously impacted," continued Ms. Huta, who said the impacts could be realized in as few as five or ten years. “Some of those places there have been some conservation measures, but no where near on the kind of scale that we need to protect these imperiled species.”
It's Getting Hot Out There (attached below), points to some conservation strategies that could help these ecosystems and their residents.
Of course, aggressively reducing greenhouse gas pollution is the most important step to guard against climate change. And we must take that action. But the impacts of climate change are already being felt across the country, and these ecosystems highlight the need to exponentially increase additional conservation measures now. Assisting species adaptation to the rapidly changing world will be essential to ensuring their survival.
Many of the conservation measures that we must take are ones that we’ve already implemented on smaller scales, such as eradicating invasive species, setting aside open space, creating wildlife corridors, and restoring wild lands. Others require that we head in new directions, such as preventing offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and transforming how we manage the water that flows through California. Whether drawing upon new or standard practice in our conservation toolkit, the urgency for all of these measures is higher than it has ever been. We must invest significantly more in funding, political solutions and hands-on conservation in a massive effort to
help ecosystems and species adapt.
Getting the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management working together on identifying, and implementing, solutions can't be overstated.
“Finding linkages from one to another and building wildlife corridors and having a more coordinated approach, that’s certainly from the policy angles one of the things that would need to be pursued," said Ms. Huta. "Better collaboration between I think the wildlife refuges and the parks and how they can work together to protect the species.”
How much these various steps might cost is hard to say; the coalition did not try to calculate the costs.
"I think it’s exponentially more than we’re spending now," said Ms. Huta, adding, however, that "We think the return on investment would certainly be worthwhile.”