CODY, Wyo. — Summer visitors to the Shoshone National Forest and Yellowstone National Park could benefit from a warming climate, though fires would probably increase, water would run short by season’s end, and some species could vanish from the landscape.
Those are predictions of a new study released by the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. The report looks at the impacts that climate change would have on the Shoshone and the consequences to the surrounding ecosystem.
Janine Rice, lead author of the study from the University of Colorado, found that climate records over the past 100 years indicate a 2-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures on the Shoshone during the summer and fall, and a 4-degree increase in winter and spring.
The report suggests that more warming has taken place at higher elevations than lower elevations. If the trend continues, temperatures across the forest could rise between two and 10 degrees in this century.
“We may be going into some uncharted territory with temperatures, or at least that is what the science says,” said Rice. “We’re not sure how all of this is going to play out, so having scientific information to plan and help these ecosystems and resources adapt and change I think is really critical.”
Rice said the changes will have both positive and negative effects on the forest ecosystem and the surrounding economies.
While the summer travel season would last longer — a possible boon to local economies — a warming climate could also result in unreliable water supplies. Earlier spring runoff would leave late summer with low flows, affecting fisheries, tourism and agriculture.
A warming climate could also bring such impacts as increased fire frequency, receding glaciers and pine beetle outbreaks at higher elevations.
It could also result in a reduction or the disappearance of species that cannot adapt to the changes, including grizzly bears, wolverines and the boreal toad, among others.
“There’s a whole lot of uncertainty with all that,” said Andy Pills, a biologist with the Shoshone National Forest. “It doesn’t bode well for the white bark pine. How grizzlies adapt to that is probably the goal in question.”
Pills said there’s some evidence to suggest that the bears could adapt to the loss of the white bark pine, one of their go-to food sources. Climate change may also hold implications for other species, including bighorn sheep.
“Species that inhabit the alpine zone where they are projecting the biggest change could see a drastic change to their habitat,” Pills said. “It certainly will depend on how things play out, and it could have some harsh consequences.”
The Shoshone, the nation’s first national forest and a prized piece of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, covers 2.4 million acres of mountainous topography in northwest Wyoming.
The report notes the forest’s importance to the surrounding ecosystem, the supply of clean water, wildlife habitat, recreation and grazing. The forest is one of four across the country chosen to participate in a climate change study.
The report, “Climate Change on the Shoshone National Forest: A Synthesis of Past Climate, Climate Projections and Ecosystem Implications,” is written to allow forest managers to use the information to help make management decisions for the future.
“The chief of the Forest Service has directed us to consider climate change by assessing the current situation and by identifying trends,” said Carrie Christman, a planner with the Shoshone.
“He’s asked us to identify risks and vulnerabilities within the planning unit, and to find management approaches and adaptations that address the risks. For us, it meant getting this report done by the Rocky Mountain Research Station to help predict trends and see how we can adjust our management.”