Climate change breaths new life to the Y2Y concept

This story was written in July 2007 as part of a journalism-style report taking stock of the concept of a Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) conservation corridor. First Proposed in 1997, the Y2Y envisioned conserving the interlocking network of ecological regions stretching over 3000 kilometers from Yukon down the Rockies to Yellowstone in the US.

Dan Fagre stands on the edge of a cliff. His feet shuffle across three flat lichen covered red rocks.  He’s about to explain a science he’s spent the last 17 years studying. Behind him is a rocky mountain valley carved over 12,000 years ago by the retreat of monstrous glaciers. Its innards, carried by the glacier, are strewn across the plains for miles to the north, while the leftover melt water formed into a lake at the bottom of the valley.

Today the aqua blue lake is fed and given its distinctive colour from one of the areas largest tourist attractions, an alpine glacier named Grinnell. Sitting on the eastern edge of the continental divide, the glacier is named after George Burke Grinnell. In 1887 he ‘discovered’ it, that is, with the help of a First Nations guide who already knew where it was. The joke, however, is on Grinnell, because his namesake, the once mile-high wall of ice, will be nothing but a puddle of melted memories in 25 years, probably sooner.

Before Fagre can begin his talk, his writing partner and friend Tony Prato, a professor of resource economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia, burst forth from the canopy covered path. “Dan can you turn down the heat, it feels like we took a quantum leap coming out of the brush.” says Prato, his brow is covered with sweat from following Fagre up the east side of Grinnell Mountain.

It is a hot day, abnormally hot, up in the 90s. It’s mid July and almost every day so far, the temperature in Northern Montana has been higher than 90 degrees, wrecking havoc in the region. The cherry farmers had to scramble to pick their fruit a week early; Air conditioners were flying off the shelf in an area not used to AC-cooled summer days, reported the Daily Inter Lake; and a ‘freak’ lightening and windstorm swept through the area. With the lightening storm came fears of forest fires in the dry surrounding forests. Already a massive 3500-acre fire was ragging in the Bob Marshall Wilderness refuge, south of Glacier National Park. The smoky haze obscured the vibrant tones of the mountaintops behind Fagre.

The heat, Prato speaks of, is unprecedented. In the last hundred years, the mountainous terrain of Northern Montana has warmed up on average 1.7 degrees Celsius – three times the average global temperature increase. A large part of the warming is attributed to anthropogenic climate change, caused primarily from burning fossil fuels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international body established to assess the science of climate change.
Today Fagre, an ecologist with the United States Geological Survey, is drawing a complete, or as best we know today, picture of the impacts of climate change on mountain ecosystems for an attentive group of hikers. The group is composed of over two-dozen teachers specially chosen from across the US by Tuft University’s Wright Center for Science Education. Their mission is to enhance science literacy and Fagre’s words will become their lesson plan.

With the teachers sprawled out in front of him sipping water and eating trail mix after completing the first leg of the hike, Fagre launches into a long explanation about the origins of the glaciers, the history of the climate in the region, the science he’s done and sad state of Glacier National Park’s glaciers.

The glaciers have been retreating ever since the mid 1400s, but it has rapidly accelerated in the last twenty years because of anthropogenic climate change, says Fagre.

The data he’s collected is stark. All of the Park’s glaciers are in retreat; 90 per cent of the once mile high Grinnell glacier has melted since the park was founded in 1910; and, there were 150 glaciers in 1850, today 20.

Modeling based on current trends shows that there won’t be a single glacier left in Glacier National Park by 2030. “It’s hard to imagine something that been around for 8,000 years going away in a just a couple decades,” says Fagre who then admits that it’s “likely we’ll beat out that 2030 estimate.”

“So what?” He pauses after delivering a steady stream of data. “You always get the question, so what I live in Detroit, I don’t have a glacier,” says Fagre as the crowd chuckles along. He says it’s important because 50 per cent of the water that people consume worldwide comes from mountains. Fagre looking out over the horizon said if present precipitation trends continue the west will be locked into a permanent drought.

“You’ve heard the old saying about water is for fighting over and whisky is for drinking.” said Fagre, “We are going to be fighting over water big time here, for ever as far as I can see right now.”

On the hike up, Fagre led the way wearing a wide brim bell hat and shades. On his back was a bag full of water; its padded hip belt and chest straps were secured tight to his stocky frame, while his bear mace dangled from a front strap. As he bounded up the mountain, his mountaineering poles, clasped to the back of his bag, bounced in rhythm with his step.

Half way up the mountain, as the group edged past Swiftcurrent Lake, Fagre pointed up the hill.

“This is a real bear slope up here – you see bears up here – a lot a lot of berries.” He then upon observing the slope changed the subject.

“A lot of things up there and this …” he said looking at the few alpine flowers, small shrubs and yellow grasses at the base of the slope, “…already looks like late August; in July it should be green and much more flowers.” As well, he later tells the group, the ground is dusty, it should be muddy; we should be crossing streams and filling up our water bottles; the seasonal snow pack should be there, but it’s not; and, the spring runoff should be in the spring, not November. “How weird is that,” he says of the early runoff.

With less snow melt and smaller glaciers, trees that need a lot of moisture like hemlock and red cedar are disappearing from the park and being replaced by trees that are more arid adaptable species like lodgepole pine.

Interestingly, lodgepole may be growing in Montana, but it’s dying in BC. By 2013, 80 per cent of BC’s lodgepole pine, the most abundant species in BC with much of that in the Y2Y, will be dead from a climate changed-linked pine beetle outbreak. The harsh winters usually kill the beetle, but that is no longer the case. Parts on the interior of British Columbia have seen big jumps in average temperature – 2.1 degree Celsius in some parts, which is real hot.

Though BC’s interior and the Yukon has seen warmer temperatures than Glacier, the increases have all manifested themselves the same way. The winter nights have warmed up the most, which is bad news for Yukon and BC because that’s prime beetle-killing time. It’s not long before some believe the beetle could spread north.

“Everyone is projecting that eventually, the mountain pine beetle will get here,” said the territory of Yukon’s senior science advisor Ian Church from his office in Whitehorse.

After an hour and a half sitting on rocks listening to Fagre, the group pushes on. With the temperature rising and only a few alpine shrubs for shade, a couple of over heated teachers call it a day. Most trek forth to as close to Grinnell as they can get. Along the path, fairly high in the alpine, a half dead coniferous tree stands the tallest over any other. What’s left of its green canopy stretches out over the path, while all of its visible roots are bleached like bull horns in the dessert.

“That’s a white bark pine,” Fagre points out. 80 per cent, he said, of the white bark pine in the park is dead from an invasive form of blister rust.

“Is the blister rust like the pine beetle connected to climate change?” I ask.
There may be a climactic connection in the rate it has devoured the white bark, he says, but it’s more that its death ends an important role played in the ecosystem.
The white bark pine is a keystone species, says Fagre because it can flourish in the high alpine, which opens the door for other species to grow under its shaded and wind protecting canopy. As well, a big jay-like bird called a parks nut cracker, squirrels and grizzlies all depend on the tree. The nut’s high fat content is an essential source of food for the iconic grizzly bear. The nut’s disappearance will eliminate a prominent part of their diet.

While the pine disappears impacting the bears, the birds and the trees, climate change will be occurring with its own set of detrimental impacts. It’s the cumulative impacts; the multiple stressors Fagre’s worried about.

Climate change, he said, is a lot like poverty. “People don’t ever die of poverty, they die of malnutrition or they die of lack of medical attention – they never die of poverty – well I don’t think animals are going to die of climate change.”
Some animals will die is the point to be understood here and many are already feeling the heat.

The snow that is falling is much wetter then normal, says Fagre, disrupting the habitat of animals dependent on snow cover. Wolverines den at a certain snow depth, for example, and the wet snow is not providing enough cover for their little ones. “These guys are living in, like you know, a little snow swamp and they are not making it,” says Fagre.

Bull trout are facing the threat of extinction in the area because of climate change. They are adapted to near arctic water temperatures, with no glaciers and small snow packs, the cold streams will become too hot for them to survive.

“The interesting ethical question is then how much to you put into preserving an organism that looks like its hanging by its fingernails and the fingernail is going to break off,” says Fagre.

Climate change is causing the trees to be become denser and move up to higher elevation. As a result, the alpine flowers are getting squeezed out and edges of meadows are being forested over, horning in on just the spots where many of the park’s endangered species reside.

As the forest grows thicker, so have the forest fires grown in severity and frequency, bringing with them more bad air days. On top of that, the fires appear to be starting in areas where all the best merchantable timber is and where the majority of the new second homes are being built.

The rising alpine tree line also eats away at mountain goat habitat, while the density does the same to grizzly bear habitat.
“You know the old saying how much wood can a wood chuck…well grizzly bears are the same way, they can’t chuck any wood,” says Fagre trying his best to keep the mood light in the shadow of his dark tale.

Grizzlies with reduced habitat from climate change and increased development outside the parks, on top of reduced food sources from the loss of the white bark pine face an uncertain future. As do many species. Some will adapt and others won’t.

Fagre is optimistic and almost excited to see what this new science of climate change adaptation will herald. “We will find out who is adaptable and who isn’t and you may be surprised,” he said. He isn’t all sunshine and jokes however; he also admits the nature of his work makes getting out of bed some mornings “absolutely daunting.”

He has hope for the wolverines currently swimming in their dens. “There is no reason why a wolverine can’t be in a city park, although it might chew someone’s leg off; but in terms of having carnivore, genetic behavioural adaptability, they’ve got to have it,” he says the last part with conviction.

It is speculated by most climate change adaptation scientists in North America that many species will move northward and to higher elevation to beat the heat.

“That is a good inference,” says Fagre, he referenced a small mammal scientific study from the 1920s repeated in the Sierras recently that showed after 90 years of climate change, all the animals moved into higher elevation, but at different rates.

“That was the first time anyone had any concrete evidence, he adds.

Species have adapted to change in the past but the difference this time is the change is more rapid than anything the animals alive today have faced and second, we, humans, are in the way, says Daniel Scott, Canadian Research Chair in Global Change and Tourism at the University of Waterloo in Southwestern Ontario.

“The Y2Y [Yellowstone to Yukon conservation corridor] concept is perfect,” Scott says for planning for climate change adaptation. The landscape needs to be permeable, connected and no one park or agency can handle it, he says. They need to think regionally or larger.

Fagre sees the Y2Y concept evolving as well.

“I think it is probably more relevant then ever before,” he said. “The connectivity issue is more obvious to more people now then it used to be.”

Scott was funded by Parks Canada to assess what the impacts of climate change would be on Canada’s 39 national parks.  His conclusion requiring a Y2Y-like vision of the land was reached and presented to Parks Canada as early as 2001. Since then, the idea and any concerted effort by the government to begin planning for adaptation has lain dormant. He said virtually all land managers in the national and provincial parks are looking for a leader, someone to tell them how to adapt.

In Australia, that somebody took the form of an “outstanding” environment minister and attorney general of New South Wales, Bob Debus, said Graeme Worboys, the World Conservation Union’s vice chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas. He achieved funding and the full backing of all eastern Australian governments and the commonwealth government for an ambitious 2800 KM conservation corridor along Australia’s eastern coast, called the Alps to Atherton (A2A).

Originally, the A2A corridor in Australia’s eastern forests was proposed as a way to minimize habitat fragmentation, but climate change became a “key part of the rational by the late 1990’s,” says Worboys.

On the walk down from Grinnell glacier, the last stragglers – Prato and Fagre included – stopped to take photos of the once hearty white bark pine we passed on the way up. Prato posed while hugging the tree, joking afterwards “I guess I’m a tree hugger now Dan.” The tree hugger comment sparked conversations the rest of the way down. Fagre talked about the delicate balance as a government scientist between speaking the truth and stepping on toes, while Prato spoke about the difficulty of bringing groups from both ends of the political spectrum together to talk about growth. Both delicate subjects that must be at the forefront of any honest conversation regarding climate change adaptation or Y2Y implementation. If not, the ecologically significant lands of the Y2Y will become a dying breed, like the white bark pine, useful for a sad story and a photo.