Changing climate changes management: Study helps guide forest staff on Shoshone

By the middle of the century, temperatures on the Shoshone National Forest will rise by 3 degrees and the glaciers in the forest will be gone. The drinking water that flows from the Shoshone, and the water used to irrigate fields,  might slow to a trickle. Forest fires will burn hotter, bigger and more often.

Kelsey Dayton

All of these drastic changes mean that forest service staff must adjust management tactics to oversee a changing forest.

A report published last January Climate change on the Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming: a synthesis of past climate, climate projections, and ecosystem implications by the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station compiles climate change research and its potential impacts on the forest.

For example, if warming weather changes the growing season for some plants, forest managers might need to adapt planting guidelines, the study said.

Or animals with already limited habitat, like lynx and wolverines, might suffer declines in already small populations, said Steve Kilpatrick, director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. Forest staff will need to manage for more threatened or endangered species. Those animals that thrive at lower elevations, like ungulates, might have more habitat, but it will decline in quality and could impact populations, he said.

“Eighty-eight years from now, things could look a lot different on the forest,” Kilpatrick said.

Why the Shoshone?

The Shoshone was one of four forests, along with Olympic National Forest and National Park, Tahoe National Forest and Inyo National Forest, studied to help land managers in dealing with climate change.

The Shoshone was chosen in part because of its location, said Linda Joyce, quantitative ecologist with USFS’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. Scientists wanted to focus on this Rocky Mountain forest to gain information from an ecosystem with  different topography, geology and land use history than the other three forests  studied.

“All of these differences provided an opportunity to explore how climate change might affect a very different forest and the key resources on the Shoshone,” Joyce said.

The Shoshone National Forest is home to Yellowstone cutthroat trout and lynx — species already under threat. Ranchers graze livestock in the Shoshone, and businesses rely on the draw of the rugged mountains to bring tourists — and their dollars — to nearby towns. Other companies rely on the forest to harvest timber.

The Shoshone was one of four forests studied to help land managers deal with climate change. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

The Shoshone’s 2.4 million acres rises to 13,845 feet at the top of Gannet Peak, Wyoming’s tallest mountain.

With its high elevations and cold temperatures the forest has long been a refugia — or well-preserved refuge of ancient conditions — for threatened plants and animals. The Shoshone has experienced climate change in the past, but scientists say that the changes expected in the next 100 years will outpace anything in the forest’s history.

 Putting climate change knowledge to work

The idea of cyclical nature as a mostly static phenomenon is long gone, especially among land managers, said Bryan Armel, forest resource staff with the Shoshone. “Everything is always changing,” he said.

The changes in nature usually occur within defined parameters, but now the parameters themselves are changing as the planet warms.

It’s well-documented that climate change accelerates glacier melt and significantly changes snow pack. The role of climate change on bark beetle outbreaks and a lengthening wildfire season is also well-understood.

In fact there is so much research in climate change that it’s difficult to incorporate all of the new information into management practices, say forest officials in the study. Existing tools, such as planting guidelines, may no longer make sense. The study also pointed to critical gaps in information, Armel said. For instance, more must be done to understand how warming atmospheric temperatures will impact stream temperatures. When stream temperatures warm, it becomes more difficult for cold-water adapted fish, like Yellowstone cutthroat trout, to survive.

The Shoshone National Forest management staff is currently working on a forest plan revision, which will lay out management strategies for the forest for up to 20 years. The challenge with climate change is that some of the impacts won’t be seen for decades, Armel said.

“In some ways, you can’t react to what’s going to happen in 60 years,” he said. “If a different species is going to grow here, you can’t start planting it now, because the change hasn’t happened yet.”

By the middle of the century, temperatures on the Shoshone National Forest will rise by 3 degrees and the glaciers in the forest will be gone. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

Forest staff have already done a good job addressing climate change in the draft forest management plan,  said Charles Drimal, Wyoming Public Lands Advocate for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. The preferred alternative calls for no surface occupancy for oil and gas development in areas of crucial winter range for wildlife, protecting whitebark pine and also studying species like Yellowstone Cutthroat trout, he said.

The next step for researchers is vulnerability assessments, which bring together best available information on the impacts of climate change on specific areas or populations to predict what will happen and how sensitive the areas and species will be to the changes, said Janine Rice, a Research Ecologist and consultant for the Forest Service, who worked on the study.

Vulnerability assessments have been conducted for Yellowstone cutthroat trout, water availability and aspen. The results are in the process of peer review and should be published this year.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com.

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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