Mapping Montana for Climate Change

June 23, 2011

A WCS conservationist maps out a climate change survival plan for species living within Montana’s Crown of the Continent ecosystem.

With its pristine peaks stretching toward the sky, much of Montana’s Crown of the Continent ecosystem has remained intact—uninterrupted by development. WCS’s John Weaver recommends it stay that way. He says continuous wild areas are the way to go for this majestic place on the U.S.-Canada border. Weaver is particularly concerned with the growing threat of climate change adding to the pressures on North America’s last great wild places and its wildlife. 

After four months spent exploring the landscape on foot and on horseback, the senior conservationist developed a strategy to aid the region’s wildlife in adapting to climate change. Gathering data from 30 biologists and nearly 300 scientific studies, Weaver synthesized a plan for 1.3 million acres of public land. Roads are not in the picture.

What is in his vision for the future? A climate refuge for grizzly bears, wolverines, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, bull trout, and westslope cutthroat trout. These species dwell within continuous wild areas that stretch for 250-plus miles along the Rocky Mountains, from Montana’s Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness Area into Canada. Since the early twentieth century, citizens, conservation groups and government representatives fought to keep the region’s wild core intact.

“These visionary leaders left a great gift and remarkable legacy,” said Weaver. “But new data and emerging threats like climate change indicate it may not have been enough. There is a rare opportunity now to complete the legacy of conservation for present and future generations.”

Weaver mapped out the areas essential to the six species’ continued survival in the Crown. These included the animals’ current habitats, the places they would likely move to when the climate changes, and the corridors they would pass through to get there.

Native bull trout, for example, require colder water than other fish, especially for spawning and for young fry to survive. With waters warming due to climate change, clear, cold, and interconnected streams at higher elevations will serve as refuge for this threatened species. On land in the high country, wolverines rely on snow for denning and rearing their pups during spring. But milder winters would mean less snowpack.

“To help vulnerable fish and wildlife cope with new challenges, we need to build upon existing protected areas and enhance connectivity across diverse habitats,” said Weaver. “These conservation actions would better protect year-round habitats for these vulnerable species, safeguard genetic integrity, enhance connectivity between key areas, and provide options for movement in response to climate change.”

In his report, Weaver ranks the region’s remaining roadless areas. He recommends adding 888,000 acres (67 percent of the roadless lands) to the National Wilderness system, which would better guarantee their protection. He suggests managing another 310,000 acres (23 percent) as ‘backcountry’ for non-motorized recreation and conservation.

“The Crown of the Continent Ecosystem is one of the great wild landscapes remaining in the world,” said Jodi Hilty, director for WCS-North America Program. “We believe that Dr. Weaver’s unique synthesis and comprehensive report will provide critical information for those discussing and deciding the future of the Crown.”

For more information, see the press release.

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