Climate changes causing plants to bloom earlier in the Greater Yellowstone, says TNC

A new study from The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming has found that many of the wildflowers and other plants in Grand Teton National Park are blooming and bearing fruit weeks earlier than they did in the 1970s due to the changing climate. And those changes could be critical to the wildlife that depend on them for survival.

Throughout the region the questions are serious. Will berry bushes produce fruit at the right time for bears to load up on critical calories before hibernation? Will sage-grouse have enough food during their spring mating and nesting season when they need it most?

What’s more, the impacts are not limited to the Greater Yellowstone.

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Sagebrush grasslands blanket millions of acres in the Western United States. As climate change alters plant cycles there, wildlife from mule deer, elk and pronghorn to a wealth of grassland birds, including imperiled greater sage-grouse, could be affected.

Understanding the changes occurring among the plants can help land managers assist plants and animals adapt to climate change.

“For example, spring wildflowers are an important food source for sage-grouse, yet are rarely included in sagebrush restoration projects,” says Bloom. “Understanding these altered bloom patterns, can help restoration planners chart out the plant choices and timing of their distribution that will be most effective in our changing climate.”

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF A VISIONARY

This study benefitted greatly from the foresight of pioneering scientist, Frank Craighead, who was best-known for decades of grizzly bear research and conservation in the region. In the 70s and 80s, Craighead carefully documented the first flowering events for many plants in parts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A few years ago, TNC science director Corinna Riginos recovered Craighead’s handwritten notes from the basement of his old cabin. Riginos and TNC community ecologist Trevor Bloom used the notes to retrace Craighead’s steps, repeating the observations on over 50 plant species. 

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What they discovered is that spring flowers are blooming an average of 17 days, some as much as 36 days, earlier than reported by Craighead. That correlates with spring snowmelt occurring on average 21 days earlier over that same period.

The full study can be found online in the Journal Ecological Applications.

Citizen scientists are invited to participate in a similar project. Wildflower Watch volunteers are chronicling plant development on trails in Grand Teton National Park.

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