Scientists discuss Yellowstone’s big three: climate change, invasives, land use


The hunting patterns of wolves may be impacted by climate change in Yellowstone Photo: Beth Pratt“If you want to get proud about a butterfly species in Yellowstone, this is the one,” said Diane Debinski, a Professor at Iowa State University. She was referring to the dainty Hayden’s Ringlet, a butterfly found almost exclusively in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).  Her research, however, did not bode well for the insect, as drier conditions in the region appear to be decreasing the butterfly’s habitat.

Debinski, along with hundreds of other scientists, researchers, and land managers, gathered inYellowstone National Park last week as part of the10th Biennial Scientific Conference. The goal of the conference, entitled “Questioning Yellowstone’s Future: Climate, Land Use, and Invasive Species,” was to foster synergies among current research and land management practices in order to find solutions for protecting the GYE against the three primary drivers of change.

And change is already rapidly occurring in the GYE, one of the largest intact temperate ecosystems on the planet. Peak runoff from snowmelt is happening 10-20 days earlier and the growing season in the GYE has increased by two weeks. Invasive species adds threats as well, such as the lake trout driving out Yellowstone’s native cutthroat trout or the Canada thistle marginalizing wetlands.  Additionally, human population in the GYE has grown by 61% from 1970 to 2000 and at the same time rural land under development has increased by 350%.

All of these changes have significant implications for the diverse flora and fauna of the region. Dr. Stephen Gray, Wyoming State Climatologist, warned: “What we think of as drought today could become the norm in the future.” Along with Hayden’s butterfly, a warmer and drier climate has consequences for a number of animal species in the GYE.  For example, Doug Smith, Yellowstone Wolf Project Leader, presented his research on winter wolf predation rates in Yellowstone and found that “big climatic patterns associated with snowfall are impacting the wolf kill rate.” The wolves in recent years have been switching from elk calves to bulls as a result of the bulls being in poorer condition in early winter because of drought. 

Other climate related findings included a possible disruption of hibernation patterns for bears, and a shift in the GYE to warm water fisheries. “Bears don’t pee for five months,” observed Professor Hank Harlow of the University of Wyoming. His research showed that the bear’s physiological strategy to conserve protein in hibernation through recycling urea could be disrupted by the animal being aroused from its den in warmer winters. Scott Christensen, the Climate Change Program Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (and an avid angler), said native trout faces risks from decreased river flow and warmer water temperatures. “Climate change is already impacting native trout and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.”

Dr. Bob Gresswell, from the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, addressed the severe threat the invasive lake trout poses to Yellowstone’s native cutthroat, and recalled the days when hundreds of thousands of visitors would gather at Fishing Bridge every year to watch the Yellowstone cutthroat spawn. “If you’ve been to Fishing Bridge lately, you are lucky to see any trout,” he lamented. Dr. Andrew Hansen from Montana State Universityproposed the choice of either loving the GYE to death or loving it to health in his keynote address. His research has shown that land use development in ecologically significant areas is already impacting the GYE, and in response to a predicted doubling of the population by 2040, he posed the question, “What is the population here that would serve the common interest?”

Despite all these challenges, the group remained hopeful that science could provide solutions to assist with protection of the GYE. In his panel on the area’s science agenda, Tom Olliff, with the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative, announced, “The good news is a lot of the work on these issues has been going on over the past year,” referring to two prior workshops held on the topic. Continuing this work—and finding viable solutions to the issues facing the GYE—is a vital next step.  Dr. Marcia McNutt, the Director of the USGS, provided attendees with the call to action: “Yellowstone like many of America’s great places is many things to many people but what it can never be is a failed scientific experiment.”

The 10th Biennial Scientific Conference, “Questioning Yellowstone’s Future: Climate Change, Land Use and Invasive Species,” was held in Yellowstone National Park on October 11-13, 2010.

Conference sponsors include the US Geological Survey, Biological Resources Discipline, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center; US Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain Prairie-Region, Office of Landscape Conservation; Montana State University;Yellowstone Association; University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute; Rocky Mountains Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit; University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research Center;Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee(National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service); Canon U.S.A., Inc., the Yellowstone Park Foundation, and the Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center.

Where the antelope roam: following in the footsteps of Yellowstone’s pronghorn

NPCA's Joe Josephson leads a group on a hike following the migration of Yellowstone's pronghorn. Photo: Beth PrattAlthough the focus of yesterday's outing was supposed to be pronghorn, the musical bugling of the rutting elk resounded throughout, and the group encountered several herds, and a few dueling bulls. Yet even with their less showy courtship ritual (primarily a male pronghorn continually herding his harem), the pronghorn did not disappoint. Participants following the footsteps of the ancient animal encountered a small group on the shoulder of Mt. Everts in Yellowstone National Park and watched in delight as the animals loped across the hillsides.

The group, led by National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA) Wildlife Fellow Joe Josephson, spent the day tracing part of the migration route of the Yellowstone pronghorn.

The nomadic pronghorns that inhabit the western United States wander long distances on their annually migration—research has shown movement up to 300 miles.  Yet the migration of Yellowstone’s pronghorn—numbering roughly 300—has been sharply curtailed by human development.

For the pronghorn herds that inhabit the park, a historical migration that once took the animals up the river canyon to nearby Paradise Valley in Montana has now been shortened considerably. Some of the pronghorn even forgo migrating and live year-round near the north entrance and Gardiner, searching out sustenance from the sparse forage during the winter months. Climate change may also be affecting the animals as a drier climate in the west impacts foraging conditions.

Josephson conducts outreach for the NPCA campaign to protect the pronghorn and is working with ranchers and landowners to remove or modify fences to help improve the animal's access through private land. Although pronghorn physiologically have difficulty jumping, they can crawl under fences designed with 18-inch openings on the bottom.

Pronghorn are truly remarkable animals. Called “speed goats” by Lewis and Clark, the fleet-footed creatures can sprint across a grassy steppe at speeds of up to 60 mph. As the fastest land mammal in North America, an adult pronghorn can outrun its predators; even a newborn fawn a couple of days after its birth can run faster than a human. Pronghorn are not true antelope, despite their mention in the well-known song, "Home on the Range," under that name.

Visit the NPCA website for more information about the group’s efforts to protect Yellowstone’s pronghorn.

Grizzly bear with rare four cubs delights visitors in Yellowstone

Grizzly bear with four cubs in Yellowstone, June 5, 2010 (photo by Beth Pratt)

Grizzly bears often give birth to one or two cubs, and occasionally have three offspring. This year, visitors have flocked to an area just outside Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park to witness a rarity: four adorable bear cubs parading behind their mother.

Watch a video of this unusual bear family:


The bear family has been spotted almost daily in the area near Bunsen Peak and Swan Lake Flat, with the four cubs frolicking and playing in the vicinity of their mother. A grizzly sow gives birth to a litter of cubs during hibernation in January or February, and the cubs usually remain with her for two winters after birth.

Yesterday this remarkable bear family spent the morning wandering in the meadows of Swan Lake Flat and hundreds of visitors watched the playful antics of the cubs. Unfortunately, not all of the cubs are expected to survive, and one of the four appears much smaller than its siblings.

Yellowstone is home to over 150 grizzly bears who reside permanently in the park, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem houses over 600 of the animals. Black bears also live in Yellowstone National Park and are commonly sighted as well.

The Yellowstone grizzly bear was recently placed back on the endangered species in 2009 as climate change is having an impact on an important food source for the animal—the whitebark pine nut. Yellowstone’s grizzlies called attention to their plight in an amusing protest video directed at Stephen Colbert.

Yellowstone’s frogs journey to Denver, Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit

Yellowstone's frogs in new airport PSA (image courtesy Save the Frogs)Next time you frequent the airports in Denver, Chicago, St. Louis or Detroit, you might see a Yellowstone Columbia spotted frog peering at you from a colorful poster. Save the Frogs, a non-profit dedicated to amphibian conservation, has launched a new public service campaign about the plight of the first national park’s amphibians.

Frog populations have been declining worldwide at unprecedented rates, and nearly one-third of the world’s over 6,000 amphibian species are threatened with extinction. Up to 200 species have completely disappeared since 1980, while amphibians naturally go extinct at a rate of only about one species every 250 years.

In Yellowstone, a recent study found that three of the four species of the park’s amphibians had decreased as a result of climate change. Researchers surveyed kettle ponds (ponds originally formed when glaciers retreated and fed by snowmelt and groundwater) between 2006 and 2008 in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. They discovered that dry ponds have increased 4-fold in the past sixteen years, and as a result eliminated a large segment of ideal amphibian habitat in the park.

Dr. Kerry Kriger, founder and Executive Director of Save the Frogs, visited Yellowstone last year and gave a talk to park visitors about amphibian decline. He got the idea for the PSAs and approached ClearChannel about placement in airports; the company agreed to help.

Kriger hopes the public will take notice and take action. “The goal of the ad is to raise awareness of amphibian declines, and to ensure that people know that climate change is a problem now, not something that needs to be dealt with in the future. I've always thought that Yellowstone embodied the issue, as it's the world's oldest protected area: if we can't save Yellowstone's wildlife, how much chance do we have to save wildlife anywhere else?”

Save the Frogs is also holding its second annual Save the Frogs Day on April 30, 2010. Events are being planned throughout the United States, South Africa, India, Australia, Croatia, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Colombia. For more information, or to participate in the event, visit the Save the Frogs website.

The world unites in celebrating life on earth: Earth Hour 2010

Earth Hour 2009 supporters in Thailand (Photo courtesy WWF)The news about climate change is often bad, filled with disheartening updates and sobering predictions on current and future impacts to our planet.

But on March 27, 2010 at 8:30 pm the world will celebrate life on earth and unite in the battle against climate change as the lights go dark globally as part of Earth Hour. Sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour has been an annual event since 2007. Last year, 4,159 cities participated including New York, Hong Kong, Paris, London, Sydney, and Los Angeles. Over a thousand iconic landmarks also went dark such as the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, Rome’s Coliseum, and the Las Vegas Strip.

In December of 2009 at the historic UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, over 192 nations unanimously agreed that global warming is the greatest threat to our planet today and that the world must act together to limit warming to a 2-degree threshold. The consequences of our reliance on fossil fuels and overwhelming consumption of energy is reverberating across the globe—disrupting natural processes and placing people and animals at risk.

Climate change is impacting the life on earth that we cherish—today. It is not an abstract, future threat, but a real force that already has repercussions in the present. In Yellowstone National Park, a small beetle that thrives in warmer temperatures is destroying a vital food source for the park’s grizzly bears. Over a third of the world amphibians are on the verge of extinction, including the yellow-legged frog in Yosemite National Park. Desert bighorn sheep and American pika, already living in two different worlds of extremes, are disappearing from their historical ranges as increasing temperatures render their respective habitats unsuitable.

Pledge your support for the grizzly bear, for the yellow-legged frog, the pika, for the survival of our national parks, and for all life by taking part in Earth Hour on March 27, 2010.

National Wildlife Federation President speaks in Yellowstone about climate change

Larry Schweiger, NWF President, wildlife watching in Yellowstone (photo by Beth Pratt)President & CEO of the National Wildlife Federation Larry Schweiger appealed to an audience inYellowstone National Park yesterday to take action at this important “moral moment” in the fight against climate change.

Schweiger outlined the overwhelming evidence that thousands of peer reviewed scientific reports have documented on climate change, and showed startling images from around the world representing the toll global warming has already taken on this planet. He recently attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and urged attendees to put pressure on their elected representatives to pass comprehensive legislation.

Schweiger also related how he spent the morning on a wildlife watching tour in the park despite the negative 38-degree temperature. “I hope for more days like this. Yellowstone needs 40 below days to remain a healthy ecosystem for its inhabitants like the whitebark pine and the grizzly bears.”

At the end of his presentation, Schweiger displayed photographs of his grandchildren and made a heartfelt plea for Americans to assume leadership in the fight against climate change for the sake of future generations. “I don’t know a single parent who wouldn’t do anything in their power for the sake of their children. But yet we are leaving our children a dangerous inheritance with a rapidly changing climate.” In his new book, Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth, Schweiger echoes this sentiment: “For the sake of all children, please join me in this effort to avoid a climate crisis and keep wildlife thriving.”

Last Chance: National Wildlife Federation President’s impassioned plea for wildlife

Larry Schweiger, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation (photo courtesy NWF)Since the age of fourteen, Larry Schweiger, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation(NWF), has been active in wildlife conservation. Over his impressive career, he has spearheaded environmental efforts through his work in non-profit and government service, and since 2004 has led the NWF, America’s largest conservation organization.

Like most environmental leaders, Schweiger realizes the dire consequences that climate change presents toward life on earth, and he recently attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to urge world governments to act. His new book, Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth, is an impassioned plea for us to combat climate change before it destroys the precious legacy of life that we leave to our children and grandchildren. All author proceeds from the book are being donated to NWF.

Last Chance outlines the threats that wildlife face from climate change, most alarmingly the statistic that “40 to 70 percent of all species could be extinct within our children’s lifetimes if we don’t take action now.” The book, however, is not just a compilation of scientific figures, although it provides an excellent summary of the projected impacts of climate change. Indeed, Last Chance also serves as a call to action for every citizen of the world.  “Global warming is not only an intellectual matter, but also a deeply moral and spiritual issue that lets no-one off the hook. We must all answer, not just with our best thoughts and words, but with our hearts and actions.”

Mr. Schweiger will be speaking on climate change and signing copies of his new book in Yellowstone National Park on January 7, 2010 at 8:00 pm at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel

Yellowstone grizzly bears to remain on endangered list

Grizzly bears in Yellowstone are threatened by climate change (photo by Beth Pratt)Grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remain protected as the result of this week’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy. 

Two years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to remove the grizzly bear from the endangered species listThe Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a non-profit advocacy group, filed suit to block the removal. 

The non-profit won the case and Judge Molloy placed the grizzly bears back under federal protection in September, stating, "Without the protections of the Endangered Species Act, the Yellowstone grizzly bear distinct population segment will be placed in jeopardy." The government appealed the ruling and sent the case back for review, which was resolved with the announcement this week of the grizzly bear’s protection being upheld.

In Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area, a tiny beetle may decide the fate of the kingly grizzly bear. A beetle that destroys the whitebark pine tree has gained a considerable foothold in Yellowstone because of the effects of climate change. High in nutritional value, whitebark pine nuts provide a valuable food source for the bears. The relationship between the bear’s survival and the whitebark pine was an important part of Judge Molloy’s decision. 

In some parts of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, beetles have destroyed up to 70 percent of the trees in whitebark pine forests. Removing this important component of the grizzly bears’ diet puts considerable stress on the species that could ultimately lead to extinction. Louisa Wilcox, senior wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, has warned, “If these trees go, they could take Yellowstone’s grizzlies…with them. If we want to save not just the whitebark pine, but the animals and plants like the grizzly bear that depend on this tree for food, we need to move to protect and restore them now.”

Even the popular news host Stephen Colbert has raised attention about the plight of Yellowstone’s bears—albeit humorously—with a segment on his regular feature “Threatdown.” Yellowstone’s bears have also attacked Colbert for promoting anti-ursine propaganda and fear mongering.


Your National Parks need you! Saving America's Best Idea from climate change

From my home in Yellowstone National Park, I’ve watched hundreds of vehicles entering the park under the famed Roosevelt Arch, and I have taken hundreds of photographs for strangers wanting a memento of themselves standing next to its impressive rock walls. Underneath its inscription, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” I have witnessed the joy, happiness, inspiration, and awe visitors from all over the world experience as they enter Yellowstone.

In Yosemite, on an overlook at Glacier Point that provides incredible views of the incomparable Yosemite Valley, its roaring waterfalls, and the iconic Half Dome, I have seen people shed tears in utter happiness at the landscape before them. At Point Reyes National Seashore, I brought a group of inner-city school children on a field trip, and watched them come alive, delighted by their freedom from traffic and gray concrete, as they ran on the beach and watched whales breach in the ocean.

Our national parks and wildlands furnish us with peace and inspiration, and consistently evoke joy in those who visit.  The remarkable spiritual and healing capabilities of our parks cannot be understated. Indeed, these special places have provided, in the words of naturalist John Muir, something essential to our soul: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.” Ken Burn’s recent documentary, "The National Parks," lovingly captured the deep connection we as a people share with the parklands, and the absolute essentialness of “America’s Best Idea” to our nation’s heritage.

But imagine Glacier National Park without its namesake glaciers. Or Yellowstone without grizzly bears roaming through its forests. Or Joshua Tree bereft of its namesake feature.

These dire scenarios and others may unfortunately become a reality. A new report released jointly by the NRDC and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization“National Parks in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption,” details the significant impacts of climate change on the twenty-five parks most at risk. Co-author Stephen Saunders warns, “Climate disruption is the greatest threat ever to our national parks. We could lose entire national parks for the first time. To head this off, we need to reduce the heat-trapping gases that are already harming them, and begin managing the parks to protect resources at risk.”

Losing our national parks, our national heritage, this connection to nature, to our past, to our essential selves, would be a tragedy of the highest degree. Yet as Americans, we can act now to help preserve our parks by lobbying our elected officials to take action, supporting non-profit organizations working toward park preservation, and adopting sustainable practices in our lives. 

Stephen Saunders believes that by uniting as a nation we can save our parks: “The National Park Service will need support from the American people. We Americans deeply love our national parks and have always rallied around when they have been in peril. Now, more than ever, is such a time.”

Stephen Colbert attacks Yellowstone Grizzlies; bears fight back

On Wednesday night, Stephen Colbert launched yet another cowardly assault on grizzly bears, naming them the number one threat on his “Threatdown,” and encouraging viewers to shoot pine beetles in order to keep Yellowstone’s grizzly bears off the endangered species list.

 But this time the bears were prepared—and have launched an ongoing campaign against Colbert’s harassment. “He’s been persecuting us relentlessly for years,” said a bear spokesperson. “We taken our message to the people and feel confident they’ll see through his cowardice once they know the truth.”

 The bears recently staged a protest against Stephen Colbert and posted a video on YouTube that exposes his lies. “Thousands of visitors come to Yellowstone every day and for the most part coexist peacefully with the bears. Picnic baskets haven’t been stolen in decades.”

 The grizzly bears in Yellowstone face threats from climate change as warmer temperatures have allowed a beetle that destroys the whitebark pine tree to thrive. The whitebark pine provides a primary food source for grizzly bears because of its high nutritional value. NRDC senior wildlife advocate Louisa Wilcox states: “If these trees go, they could take Yellowstone’s grizzlies and a lot of America’s western forests with them.” 

The bears keep issuing a challenge to Colbert to visit Yellowstone and confront his unwarranted fears, but so far the news host has ignored their requests, which has made the bears critical of his alleged ‘manliness.’ “He claims to be a proud American, but we think he’s a coward and unpatriotic for not wanting to visit America’s first national park. President Obama was not afraid.”

Watch the bears' protest video below:

Xanterra and other major U.S. companies urge Senate to act on climate change

Xanterra Parks & Resorts installs solar panels in Death Valley to reduce greenhouse gas emissionsXanterra Parks & Resorts partnered with eleven other major U.S. companies and the non-profit World Wildlife Fund in sending an open letter to the U.S. Senate that urges government to take immediate action on climate change.

“With this joint letter, we wish to make clear to the American public and their elected officials that leading voices in the business community believe it is in our interest for the U.S. to act swiftly to address climate change.” 

The companies sponsoring the letter—Bumble Bee Foods, Dell, DuPont, FPL Group, Google, Hewlett Packard, Johnson & Johnson. Johnson Diversey, Levi Strauss, Nike, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Xanterra Parks and Resorts—all have implemented reforms to address the growing challenges of climate change. They also believe these reforms translate into good business as well: “America can and must prosper in the face of growing climate change. Our companies have taken the first step by showing the economic opportunities of strong climate action.”

Xanterra Parks & Resorts strongly believes that sound environmental practices translate into good business as well. Xanterra’s President and CEO, Andrew Todd, thinks “we really have no choice: businesses must learn to succeed both financially and ecologically. Otherwise, we jeopardize our irreplaceable natural resources, as well as the future generations that depend upon them.” As the company manages concession operations in National Parks across the country, including Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Death Valley, Crater Lake, Grand Canyon, and Zion, it takes its role as an environmental steward very seriously.

In all of its locations, Xanterra has taken ambitious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce its environmental impacts. In 2008, it installed a solar power system in Death Valley that generates enough electricity to power more than 700 American homes per year—and it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 23,000 tons over its 30-year life. In Yellowstone, the company diverts72% of its solid waste from landfill disposal through an aggressive recycling program and engineered a system that allows it to burn used cooking oil to heat the historic hotels in the park.


Mollusks 13, fungi 75, birds 86, frogs 1: results from Yellowstone's first BioBlitz

Park visitors explore the BioBlitz discovery tentThe elk herd that frequents Mammoth Hot Springs remained conspicuously absent, perhaps sensing their star status had been supplanted—at least for the day—by Yellowstone’s smaller creatures.

Hundreds of Yellowstone visitors young and old gathered around the Yellowstone BioBlitz tent eagerly peering into microscopes at red water mites or watching a display of carnivorous aquatic beetles. Volunteer scientists from across the country, all of whom had just spent an exhausting day counting the flora and fauna in the Mammoth Hot Springs area, enthusiastically related stories of their discoveries. 

Mycologist Bob Antibar, who had traveled from Ohio for the event, proudly displayed a colorful array of mushrooms at his table and cheerfully fielded questions about the strange-looking fungi. He was pleased with the results of the BioBlitz: “We did pretty well for such a dry area of the park, counting almost a hundred species of fungi.” Cathy Cripps, from Montana State University, explained her important work in using beneficial fungi to foster the health of the whitebark pine tree, which is threatened in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

A Columbia spotted frog collected from the fieldIn contrast to the numbers of the fungi-enthusiasts, the herpetologists were disappointed in finding only Columbia spotted frogs and two snakes. Since only four species of amphibians and six species of reptiles live in the entire park, finding three species is still quite an accomplishment in itself. Visitors did not seem to be keeping score and delighted in viewing the live Columbia spotted frog and garter snake the herpetologists had gathered from the field.

At the insect table, a microscope revealed dozens of tiny creatures wiggling among leaf litter. Beetle expert Michael Ivie proudly showed people the tiny featherwing beetle, the smallest beetle in Yellowstone and one of the smallest in the world. The size of a pinhead, the beetle had to be viewed through a hand lens.

Dr. James Halfpenny with his animal track collectionDr. James Halfpenny, a scientist based in Yellowstone, had a full collection of mammal track casts on display and shared photographs of his group’s exciting find; while searching for pika, his team encountered a marten scurrying among the rocks. “We must have taken over 400 photos of the marten between us,” he said and laughed.

Overall, a total of 956 species had been identified by noon on Saturday. The scientists will continue to study their findings and publish the final results on the Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center website. The first Yellowstone BioBlitz not only provides an important biological inventory, but also helps scientists understand how to maintain the health of an ecological system. With climate change, pollution and other environmental ills threatening our public lands, studies like these will be crucial to the future of Yellowstone and other national parks.

Visit my Examiner page for a slideshow of the event.

Yellowstone’s Grizzly Bears and Other Wildlife at Risk from Climate Change

Imagine Yellowstone National Park without grizzly bears roaming through its forests. Or desert bighorn sheep missing from the landscape of Arches or Canyonlands.

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) just released the report “Climate Change and National Park Wildlife: A Survival Guide for a Warming World.”The report features profiles of eleven wildlife species in parks and the serious threats they face from climate change. Mark Wenzler, director of clean air and climate programs at NPCA states: “The effects of climate change on wildlife are already visible in our national parks. If we don’t begin to act, many species may go extinct.”

In Yellowstone, a tiny beetle may decide the fate of the kingly grizzly bear. Whitebark pine nuts provide a valuable food source for the bears. A beetle that destroys the whitebark pine tree has gained a considerable foothold in Yellowstone because of the effects of climate change. In some parts of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, beetles have destroyed up to 90 percent of the trees in whitebark pine forests. Removing this important component of the grizzly bears’ diet puts considerable stress on the species that could ultimately lead to extinction.

Although the report raises the alarm about the perils grizzly bears and other wildlife face from climate change, it also promotes a call to action and proposes solutions. The introduction lists five steps needed to safeguard America’s wildlife from climate change, and each wildlife story outlines specific strategies to combat the problem. Mark Wenzler also views this crisis as an opportunity for positive change: “Decisive action now can help bring about a more hopeful future for wildlife and ourselves.”

You can view the full report on NPCA’s website.

Save the Frogs!

During my first thru hike on the John Muir Trail almost fifteen years ago, on the ascent up to Seldon Pass I encountered a young man energetically trotting down the trail without a backpack. Before even saying hello he asked excitedly, “have you seen any frogs?”  The question was a strange greeting, but this researcher had luckily encountered a fellow frog enthusiast. Subsequently he revealed that he was a researcher studying frog populations in the Sierra Nevada. I wish I could recall his name, but his passion for frogs I remember well.

Frog and Mantis ShowdownI’m not sure when my passion for frogs began—as a child of the 70s I’m sure watching Kermit the Frog on the Muppet Show had something to do with my interest. I spent countless hours searching the banks of the Concord River in Massachusetts looking for amphibians; as an adult, I wandered the high country in Yosemite near Tioga Pass looking for the Yosemite toad.

In 2007, my partner and I constructed a frog pond at our home outside Yosemite (I need to give proper credit: he constructed it while I took the easy job and decorated it with plants). Our intent was to provide a proper habitat for the Pacific Chorus frogs that already lived in our yard. Instead of watching television on summer evenings, we would gaze at the chorus frogs catching moths on our window ledge. One memorable occasion, a chorus frog and a California mantis engaged in a standoff—neither one backed down and both eventually retreated. Another time an Alligator lizard and a chorus frog rested nearby each other on our windowsill.

Alligator Lizard and Chorus Frog

Build it and they will come. Only a few weeks after we erected the pond, I encountered a western toad at dusk heading toward the water with his peculiar walk. This March and April, during my visit home from Yellowstone, I listened to the distinct and loud “kreck-ek” of the Pacific Chorus Frogs day and night. Mary Dickerson, who authored The Frog Book in 1906, deemed the chorus frog the “entertaining little acrobat of the frog world” and described their song: “At dusk or on rainy days a loud resonant trill comes from the trees and vines. The sound has the charm of contentment in it; in fact it is much like the purring of a cat, only louder.”

Our Backyard Frog Pond

Pacific Chorus Frog Eggs in Our PondMuch to my delight I also discovered chorus frog tadpole eggs in our pond during my visit (I love the Honduras word for tadpole: “bunbulun”). The tiny eggs grew rapidly during my stay at home, from small dots to wriggling miniatures. 

I regretted having to return to Yellowstone before they hatched, but my partner Shad has promised to remain on tadpole watch and send photos as soon as they emerge. Below is a video of our frog sanctuary.

Despite the success of our backyard frog sanctuary, I am extremely worried about our frog friends across the globe. As Kermit the Frog sang, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” Today, amphibians worldwide are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. I’ve written previously about the staggering declines of Yellow-legged frog in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, and the recent study in Yellowstone that showed decreases in 3 of the 4 amphibian species in the park. If frogs are having a difficult time surviving in some of the best-protected places on the planet, something is truly wrong.  Here’s another alarming statistic: climate change, pollution, habitat destruction and disease have put over a third of the world’s amphibian species on the brink of extinction.

How can you help? Dr. Kerry Kriger, who is currently studying amphibian disease, founded a great organization: Save the Frogs. Visit the website to learn more about amphibian extinction and what you can do to help.  Be sure to also mark your calendar so you can celebrate the first official Save The Frogs Day on April 28!

NPCA Testifies About Global Warming in National Parks

The National Parks Conservation Association’s (NPCA) Mike Cipra recently testified about the impacts of climate change on our national parks at a government hearing held just outside Joshua Tree National Park—an appropriate setting given global warming may eradicate the tree from its namesake park within a century.

Cipra stated in his testimony that “the single greatest threat to the health of our national parks is global climate change” and made a compassioned plea in his testimony for protecting the parks. He proposed using an allocation of funding from a cap and trade system on greenhouse gases to address the impacts of climate change on wildlife and ecosystems, a solution he considers “crucial to a healthy future for our economy, our national parks, and our children’s health.”

With the work of non-profits like NPCA, we are making progress toward ensuring our national parks remain for future generations to enjoy. Visit NPCA’s website for more information on the issue and to read their report,“Unnatural Disaster: Global Warming and Our National Parks.”

A Victory for the Pika!

The Intrepid--And Pretty Darn Cute--Pika (Photo Courtesy Earthjustice)Hiking in the high mountains provides many rewards; one such absolute joy for me is hearing the cheerful chirping of the pika and seeing the dainty creature scurry across boulder fields.

Climate change and environmental degradation, however, threaten the existence of this small animal. Last year I wrote about the plight of the pika and the attempts of the non-profits Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity to place the animal on the endangered species list through ongoing lawsuits.

Early this month both groups scored a victory with a settlement requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider the pika for protection under the Endangered Species Act.  The pika now becomes the first mammal in the lower 48 to be considered for endangered species status because of the impacts of global warming.

As Greg Loaris, an attorney for Earthjustice noted in a recent press release: “The pika’s shrinking habitat is a harbinger of what may happen to many species if we don’t address global warming now. With this settlement, we are hopeful that the new administration will take this issue seriously."

Please consider making a donation to Earthjustice or The Center for Biological Diversity to support their important work! For more information about the pika and the settlement, visit the Center for Biological Diversity's fact sheet.

An Ode to the Whitebark Pine

Krummholz Whitebark Pine on Mt. Washburn (NPS Library)The knarled and twisted trunk of the intrepid whitebark pine stands as a testament to the stubbornness of a tree and its will to survive in harsh conditions. Although found at a range of elevations above 7,000 feet, the whitebark gains character the higher it lives, as strong winds and freezing temperatures stunts its growth into a “krummholz” (German for crooked or bent) formation.

When I spend time in the subalpine zone, I gaze at the tops of the whitebark pine looking for my favorite bird, the boisterous Clark’s Nutcracker, who plays an important role in the dispersal of the tree’s cones and seeds, and consequently its regeneration. (I have the utmost respect for the Clark’s Nutcracker, who can store over 30,000 seeds in thousands of caches and remember every location!) Watch a video of the bird extracting seeds on the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation website.

Whitebark Pine Seeds: A Grizzly Bear's Favorite Food!The nutrient-rich seeds of the whitebark pine support a diverse array of wildlife, from nuthatches and finches, to chipmunks and squirrels. Yet the seeds also provide one of Yellowstone’s largest mammals—the grizzly bear—with a vital component of its diet. Grizzly bears usually don’t pluck cones from the tree, but raid the middens of hardworking squirrels for the majority of their seed consumption.

Although the lodgepole pine is the most common tree in Yellowstone, the whitebark pine may rank as the most important to the park’s ecosystem. The tree acts as a keystone species—a species that exerts significant influence on the ecological community it inhabits, and as a result, its demise can have catastrophic consequences.

Whitebark Pine in Yellowstone (NPS Library)Unfortunately, those consequences might already be occurring as the whitebark pine is suffering from several ailments—some of which are enhanced by climate change. The mountain pine beetle and the blister rust fungus have begun to gain a foothold, perhaps due to changing climatic conditions. An increase in the frequency of severe fires, also thought by some to be the result of global warming, creates conditions unfavorable for the tree.

In early December, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the federal government to list the whitebark pine on the endangered species list. The non-profit group cited some alarming statistics: in portions of the whitebark’s range, 50% of the trees are dead and 80 to 100% of the live trees are infected with blister rust or beetles.

In the press release announcing the petition, NRDC senior wildlife advocate Louisa Wilcox raised the alarm: “If these trees go, they could take Yellowstone’s grizzlies and a lot of America’s western forests with them. If we want to save not just the whitebark pine, but the animals and plants like the grizzly bear that depend on this tree for food, we need to move to protect and restore them now.”

Below is an excellent video by the NRDC on the threatened status of the whitebark pine.

How can you help? Support the important work of organizations like the NRDC and The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation. For more information on the whitebark pine, you can also visit an overview at the Greater Yellowstone Science Center.

Climate Change on the California Coast: A Field Trip

Stinson BeachAccording to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Losing Ground” report, climate change will have significant consequences on California’s coast. Several public agencies and other conservation designations help protect a large portion of California’s 840-mile scenic coastline. Yet rising sea levels resulting from global warming threaten to erode beaches, ravage the delicate balance of estuaries and wetlands, and destroy cultural resources and recreational areas. Point Reyes National Seashore may lose many of its estuaries; Golden Gate Recreation Area, with 59 miles of beaches, faces severe coastal flooding; and, over half of Channel Islands’ seashore has been deemed very vulnerable to rising tides.

The report specifically names a number of beaches in Northern California, and I decided to explore these special places during my recent trip to the Bay Area. My partner on my field trip, the naturalist Jack Laws, has been exploring the California coast since childhood and made for an enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide.

Red-tailed Hawk at Sunset, Point Reyes National SeashoreIn one day we managed to visit most of the beaches listed in the report, and our determination was rewarded with a trip filled with wondrous sights: from viewing ochre starfish on a rock exposed by low tide at China Beach, to observing Tule elk resting under a full moon in Point Reyes National Seashore, to gazing at harbor seals lounging in Bolinas Lagoon.

These magnificent places boast spectacular scenery, provide homes for diverse and numerous populations of flora and fauna, and offer recreational opportunities for people throughout the golden state. I agree with Jack, however, when he expressed his affinity for the California coast as originating from “the feeling it evoked of freedom, possibilities, and liberation in its limitless space.” For all these reasons, we simply must take action to preserve these areas before it’s too late.

Below are highlights of our field trip along with a video diary. More photos are available in my gallery

Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Recreation Area (GGNRA): The famous Cliff House overlooks Ocean Beach; its close proximity to San Francisco makes it a popular destination for city dwellers. Even with the dense fog and cool temperatures, surfers braved the waters and beachgoers tossed frisbees. Jack discovered a red nereid worm in the sand and revived some jellyfish stranded on the low tide.

Cliff House Overlooking Ocean BeachChina Beach, GGNRA: Named for the Chinese fisherman who camped in the sheltered cove, China Beach offers a nice picnic spot, but the swimming can be dangerous. The low tide during our visit revealed two ochre starfish clinging to a rock as they dined on mussels, and a lively gathering of seagulls on the shore included an assortment of heermann’s, mew, ring-billed, and glaucous-winged gulls. Other creatures making an appearance: a willet, shore crab, limpets, and a double-breasted cormorant.

Golden Gate Bridge from Baker BeachBaker Beach, GGNRA: The Golden Gate Bridge, peaking out of the fog, greeted us as we entered. On the dunes of Baker Beach yellow-sand verbena and beach strawberry bloomed in bright yellow and white—a stark contrast to the dull brown sand.

Muir Beach, GGNRA: The path to the beach leads through a brackish lagoon and we scanned the landscape for the various shorebirds that linger here. Fog hovered over the coastline, reminding me of Carl Sandburg’s famous poem: “The fog comes on little cat feet./It sits looking/over harbor and city/on silent haunches/and then moves on.” Jack told me about witnessing the spectacular salmon run on Muir Beach, while I pretended the sun was shining and waded in the water.

Stinson Beach, GGNRA: The sun strained to conquer the fog and almost succeeded, yet the marriage of light and dark painted the shore in a misty mother-of-pearl iridescence. A small willet chased a long-billed marble godwit, trying to steal his foraged food, while seagulls hosted a noisy gathering nearby. Sharks have been known to frequent the waters off Stinson beach; Jack and I searched for the telltale fin cutting through the water with no success.

Drakes Estero: Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS): Drake’s Estero is a picturesque spot in Point Reyes National Seashore with its waters meandering gently inland; from above the waterways resemble an outstreched hand. Once a drowned river valley, the marshlands, tidal flats, seagrass beds, and intertidal areas—along with the diverse plants and animals it supports—has been recognized as one of California’s most ecologically pristine estuaries.

Point Reyes Beach, PRNS: The powerful surf and unyielding wind has shaped the character of Point Reyes beach—truly we felt like we were standing on the edge of the world. Also known as Giant Beach, the shoreline stretches undisturbed for ten miles and the water arrives unencumbered from the mighty expanse of the Pacific. Utilizing some bull kelp that had been washed ashore, Jack quickly constructed a kelp horn, although his music could hardly be heard above the roar of the wind.

Full Moon Over Drakes BeachDrakes Beach, PRNS: Did Sir Francis Drake land at his namesake beach? There is some debate whether the sandstone cliffs along this beach refer to the white cliffs mentioned in Drake’s journal. We arrived at sunset and the pinkish hues reflected on the water while the full moon danced both in the sky and on the beach. And as if nature had cued up a delightful cast of characters for our last site, during our drive to and from Drake’s Beach we saw Tule elk resting in a meadow under a full moon, a red-tailed hawk perched on a fence post at sunset, and just before dark a great-horned owl soared past our car.

For information on the areas we toured, you can visit the National Park Service’s website on the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore. The Golden Gate Conservancy and the Point Reyes National Seashore Association’s websites also contain excellent visitor information. 

It’s Not Easy Being Green, Part 2: Amphibian Decline In Yellowstone

Chorus Frog Crawling on Author's HomeWhen I relocated from Yosemite to Yellowstone, I had to adjust to subzero temperatures, a lack of Thai food, and being in the middle of the food chain. Yet the most difficult alteration involved the shortage of my favorite animals: frogs.

In my home outside of Yosemite, the delicate pacific chorus frogs decorated my windows as they prowled for moths, and on my hikes in the Sierra I often encountered the mountain yellow-legged frog lounging around sunny stream banks.  As I reported in a prior entry, Yosemite’s amphibians have declined alarmingly in recent years—some populations of the mountain yellow-legged have been reduced by over 90 percent in the Sierra Nevada.

Amphibians in Yellowstone are scarce—and getting scarcer. Yellowstone’s harsh climate supports only four species of amphibians: boreal toad, boreal chorus frog, Columbia spotted frog, and the tiger salamander. Unfortunately, these animals have also recently experienced steep declines according to a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PSNA) entitled “Climatic Change and Wetland Desiccation Cause Amphibian Decline in Yellowstone National Park.”

Columbia Spotted Frog (NPS Library)Authors Sarah McMenamin, Elizabeth Hadly, and Christopher Wright surveyed kettle ponds (ponds originally formed when glaciers retreated and fed by snowmelt and groundwater) between 2006 and 2008 in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. They discovered that dry ponds have increased 4-fold in the past sixteen years, and as a result eliminated a large segment of ideal amphibian habitat in the park. Even more troubling, the study found that three of the four amphibian species in Yellowstone had experienced sharp declines in their populations.

Lamar Valley in Yellowstone: Location of StudyMs. McMenamin told the BBC News, "There is a pretty substantial signal of climate change in this region." The report introduction also raises an alarm: “Our results indicate that climatic warming already has disrupted one of the best-protected ecosystems on our planet and that current assessment of species vulnerability do not adequately consider such impacts.”

Aside from the devastation this news causes frog-o-philes like me, why is the disappearing amphibians cause for concern? Amphibians have been characterized as an indicator species—because of their sensitivity to environmental degradation, they act as a bellwether for change. As David Wake, author of another study on amphibian decline recently stated, "There's no question that we are in a mass extinction spasm right now. Amphibians have been around for about 250 million years. They made it through when the dinosaurs didn't. The fact that they're cutting out now should be a lesson for us.”

A Plea for the Pika

Pika on Rock (NPS Library)Last summer my good friend, the naturalist Jack Laws, joined me for a hike up to the Dana Plateau in Yosemite, one of my favorite places on earth. The rock filled plateau resembles a Martian landscape and presents an ancient geologic wonderland—the high alpine basin remained untouched by recent glaciations, and as a result, offers a rare glimpse of a landscape 25 million years old.

The oddly shaped granite boulders that inhabit the area act as aged sentinels who have endured an eon of winds, rains, snows, and sun that have shaped their unique character. Mount Dana and its glacier also stand watch over the plateau and the adjacent Glacier Canyon. The entire area transports the visitor back to a prehistoric time—indeed, during my visits I would not have been surprised to observe a pterodactylus extending its enormous wings as it soared over the cerulean waters of Dana Lake.

 Dana Plateau, Yosemite National ParkYet for all the beauty created by the giganticness of the sweeping plateau and its imposing granite peaks, my favorite sight amidst this landscape is a small furry creature less than eight inches long who scrambles among the rock piles largely unnoticed. 

Observant hikers (and those lucky enough to have the company of such a gifted naturalist as Mr. Laws) can encounter the American pika (ochotona princeps ) in rocky terrain at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, California, and New Mexico. The Dana Plateau, with a landscape dominated by talus, provides the ideal habitat for these small lagomorphs, also fondly referred to as rock rabbits, boulder bunnies, or whistling hares.

On a warm summer day in August, Jack and I stopped on the east slope of the plateau and sat on a large boulder, quietly and patiently scanning the terrain for signs of the pika. In the direction of Mono Lake, a large cumulonimbus cloud rose into the heights of the blue sky, its white arms extending into an anvil shape, a telltale sign of an imminent thunderstorm.   Very soon after our arrival, we heard the unmistakable high-pitched chirping of the pika—appropriately, its name may be a derivative of the Russian word pikat, meaning, “to squeak.”

Pika in Yellowstone (NPS Library)Despite the impending storm nearby, Jack opened his sketchbook and began capturing the pika with his talented artist’s hand. We both watched, delighted, as one pika harvested a stalk of lupine and carried it between his incisors back to his rockpile home. Pikas do not hibernate, but collect various grasses, shrubs, and lichen, place the food into the sun to dry, and then stash it into a “haystack” for winter consumption. The nimble and deft pikas have also been known to loot their neighbors’ haystacks.

For me, watching the rabbit-like pika scurry over talus fields is as essential to the beauty and character of the high alpine landscape as the requisite towering peaks. Sadly, the cheerful chirping of the pika may soon disappear from the high country as the effects of climate change have already reduced their numbers. Rising temperatures have diminished the already small islands of habitat for the cold-loving pikas (who can perish from overheating) and have pushed them higher up the range. If temperatures continue to increase, even the highest elevations may no longer provide a home for the pikas and the species may be threatened to the point of extinction.

Pika Eating Grass (NPS Library)Erik Beever, a USGS ecologist who co-authored a 2003 study of the species funded by the World Wildlife Fund, commented in a recent article in ENN: 

"Population by population, we're witnessing some of the first contemporary examples of global warming apparently contributing to the local extinction of an American mammal at sites across an entire eco-region." 

His study found that pikas had vanished from seven of the twenty-five sites he had surveyed over a ten-year period in Nevada, California, and Oregon.

The World Wildlife Fund is continuing to provide grants for further pika research. Dr. Lara Hansen, a senior scientist with World Wildlife Fund Climate Change Program underscored the severity of the issue, "American pikas may unfortunately be the 'canary in the coal mine' when it comes to the response of alpine and mountain systems to global warming. Their disappearance is an indication that our heavy reliance on polluting fossil fuels is causing irreparable damage to our environment. We must make the switch to clean renewable energy resources like wind and solar now before it's too late."

 Sketch by Jack Laws of Pika on Dana Plateau Donald Grayson, an archaeologist with the University of Washington, also published a study on pikas in a recent issue of the Journal of Biogeography . "Pikas are an iconic animal to people who like high elevations," he said. "They are part of the experience. What's happening to them is telling us something about the dramatic changes in climate happening in the Great Basin. Climate change will have a dramatic effect including important economic impacts, such as diminished water resources, on people."

Grayson notes that the Beever and Patton survey showed an increase of 1,700 feet in elevation in the range of the pika in Yosemite National Park. Today, pikas can be found only over 9,500 feet in Yosemite; in 1910, their range extended to as low as 7,800 feet.

These alarming trends have spurred environmental groups into action. Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity have partnered to petition federal and state agencies to list the American pika as an endangered species. Although the initial request was refused, another suit was recently filed in October. 

You can watch a video on pikas from Earthjustice below:

Although thunder began echoing off the surrounding granite peaks during our pika viewing, Jack and I remained in our observation seats, captivated by the movements of the hamster-like creature, who has managed to survive in an incredibly harsh environment despite its vulnerable appearance. I am grieved at the thought that our irresponsible environmental behavior may drive this intrepid creature to extinction.

As much as I cherish the magnificent granite peaks, glacial lakes, and spectacular views of the Dana Plateau, something will be irrevocably lost from the intrinsic character of the land and from the delight of my experience if one of the smallest inhabitants of its landscape disappears and if when hiking through the talus fields I no longer hear the sunny chirping of the pika.