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Risky Business

By Sarah Sinnema, Communication Studies major, Climate Change Studies minor
Thursday, August 17, 2011

Traveling around Glacier National Park, we sit awestruck in our vehicles.  Minor conversations take up the space between long stares out the windows.  The mountains are omnipresent.  As we hike around we take deep breaths, inhaling the fragrant vegetation.  I’m personally quite distracted by the sweeping views of jagged mountain peaks, like kings guarding this ancient forest. 

Tony Prato hiking with students in Glacier National Park. Photo by Nicky Phear.There’s a dichotomy however, between the beauty, the pristine wilderness, and the ugly truth that climate change is advancing, and many of this Park’s wild inhabitants are struggling to keep up. 

For folks like Tony Prato, climate change provides a life’s work.  Professor and co-director emeritus at the center for applied research and environmental systems at the University of Missouri, Prato has come to Glacier National Park, bringing his knowledge of adaptive management with him.

Adaptive management is a process of formulating models or experiments to test how ecosystems respond to a variety of management actions. For example, scientists use adaptive management to test strategies that aim to reduce bison-cattle brucellosis transmission outside Yellowstone National Park.
           
“Adaptive management is the only logical approach under the circumstances of uncertainly and the continued accumulation of knowledge” (Kohm and Franklin, ‘97).  Adaptive managements is, essentially the only choice we have if we want to see plant and animal species advance into the uncharted territory climate change is creating.  Take the American pika for example.  A small member of the rabbit family that resides exclusively in high altitude areas, pikas have a standard high body temperature, and can die of hyperthermia after being in 78 degree or above temperatures for only a mere six hours.  As temperatures continue to rise in high altitude areas, pika are failing to adapt and respond quickly enough. 

Tony Prato holding students attention during a lecture on adaptive management.  Photo by Nicky Phear.How might humans, as managers, help the pika to adapt to these new conditions?

There are no easy answers, but adaptive management may be the best approach.  Prato and others who work on the issue of aiding natural ecosystems’ transition into a more fluid, unpredictable climate, face these risks with determination.  Adaptive management is a more sophisticated sort of guessing game, but the wrong guess might mean the extinction of an entire plant or animal population.  Questions like how favorably populations will respond to treatments, how you account for all subsystems in the ecosystem, or how much a natural disturbance might interfere with management actions spring into the equation with no warning.  It is clear that this work takes knowledge, determination, and a healthy dose of ecological intuition.

At the end of a long day traipsing around Glacier National Park, we can all agree that doing adaptive management is worth the risk.  Making any attempts to preserve and protect these beautiful forest lands from the unknown effects of this warming world is better than sitting back and wistfully watching the slow creep of natural adaptation occur.  Given the uncertainty involved, adding this aspect of human intervention allows an understanding of how human management adds to the mix.  Although it is time consuming to complete these huge, complicated experiments, it provides a broader understanding of the changes occurring alongside climatic shifts.  Blogger Sarah Sinnema monitors a mountain goat above Hidden Lake.  Photo by Nicky Phear.And it allows us to help right some of the early changes occurring, like the spread of non-native invasive plant species overtaking land previously filled with native species. 

It is still quite early in the game, so to speak, and we must wait and watch as Tony Prato and others work hard to manage the wild places on our planet.  Their job will be much more challenging, especially in the face of climate change, if we cannot halt our increasing contributions to climate change.  Unchecked carbon dioxide emissions and rabid consumptive tendencies must end.  We must risk leaving our comfort zones to see what we can still preserve, and what we can easily fix.  I think it will be worth it in the end, I think we will manage.

References
Kohm, K.A., and J.F. Franklin. 1997. Introduction. Pages 1-5 in K.A. Kohm and J.F. Franklin, editors. Creating forestry for the 21st century: The science of ecosystem management. Island Press, Washington, DC.