"Dramatic" response by flora & fauna to climate change

Birds, plants, and animals adapt to changing weather patterns, who knew?

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News Release

Dramatic Links Found Between Climate Change, Elk, Plants, and Birds

Missoula, MT – Climate change in the form of reduced snowfall in mountains is causing powerful and cascading shifts in mountainous plant and bird communities through the increased ability of elk to stay at high elevations over winter and consume plants, according to a groundbreaking study in Nature Climate Change.

The U.S. Geological Survey and University of Montana study not only showed that the abundance of deciduous trees and their associated songbirds in mountainous Arizona have declined over the last 22 years as snowpack has declined, but it also experimentally demonstrated that declining snowfall indirectly affects plants and birds by enabling more winter browsing by elk. Increased winter browsing by elk results in trickle-down ecological effects such as lowering the quality of habitat for songbirds.

The authors, USGS Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit scientist Thomas Martin and University of Montana scientist John Maron, mimicked the effects of more snow on limiting the ability of elk to browse on plants by excluding the animals from large, fenced areas. They compared bird and plant communities in these exclusion areas with nearby similar areas where elk had access, and found that, over the six years of the study, multi-decadal declines in plant and songbird populations were reversed in the areas where elk were prohibited from browsing.

“This study illustrates that profound impacts of climate change on ecosystems arise over a time span of but two decades through unexplored feedbacks,” explained USGS director Marcia McNutt. “The significance lies in the fact that humans and our economy are at the end of the same chain of cascading consequences.”

The study demonstrates  a classic ecological cascade, added Martin. For example, he said, from an elk’s perspective, less snow means an increased ability to freely browse on woody plants in winter in areas where they would not be inclined to forage in previous times due to high snowpack. Increased overwinter browsing led to a decline in deciduous trees, which reduced the number of birds that chose the habitat and increased predation on nests of those birds that did choose the habitat.

“This study demonstrates that the indirect effects of climate on plant communities may be just as important as the effects of climate-change-induced mismatches between migrating birds and food abundance because plants, including trees, provide the habitat birds need to survive,” Martin said.

The study, Climate impacts on bird and plant communities from altered animal-plant interactions, was published online on Jan. 8 in the journal Nature Climate Change.

This release can be found in the USGS Newsroom at: http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=3069.


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“The significance lies in the fact that humans and our economy are at the end of the same chain of cascading consequences.”
Which end?
Or is there, in fact any sense in using the word “end” when their are multiple complex interacting feedback loops in operation?

Alan S. Blue

And yet, nothing similar could -possibly- demolish the entire paleo-dendroclimatology by significantly affecting which trees are solely “temperature stressed”.

one word destroys their whole study – “mimicked ” i.e modelled
where are the real data, observations and hypotheses?


Didn’t we have another story on something like this recently?? Yeah, there is a good reason why the bears turned white and learned how to swim. The ones who couldn’t didn’t pass on their genes up north 100K years ago. Now if we could only select for intelligence instead of breeding stupidity in our universities.

“Now if we could only select for intelligence instead of breeding stupidity in our universities.”
Not seeing that as a possibility in the near future -way to much $$$ involved.

R. de Haan

Another GIGO, Garbage In Garbage Out report ripe for the shredder.
Oh the waste of time and money…


And of course the governments restrictions on hunting couldn’t have affected the number of browsing elk which causes overgrazing.


Wait, wouldn’t decreased snow cover allow the elk to graze on grasses for a longer portion of the year, thus improving the overall health of the trees?


With a full cycle of the PDO being between 50 and 70 years, a full cycle of the AMO being between 55 and 70 years, and both having large effects on regional weather in regions as diverse as Asia, North America and Europe, I’m comfortable in saying that a 22 year study of the effects of “climate” on anything is neither rigorous or complete.


OMG! Either build more elk fences or eat more “elk burgers”; there will be more trees either way.

Al Gored

Read this last night. Funny.
The real issue here is just the number of elk. But, as in Yellowstone, they have been lying about that for decades.
Until the late 1960s there were annual elk culls in Yellowstone to control the population. Then the greenies decided that they shouldn’t do that in a national park and forced them to end that. To create cover for this move they INVENTED what is called the ‘Theory of Natural Regulation’ whereby elk were allegedly controlled by their food supply… so the horrendous overbrowsing and annual starvation of elk there was supposed to be ‘natural.’
(This ‘Natural Regulation’ theory was actually just a science coated version of the ‘balance of nature’ myth.)
They could not admit that predation controlled elk numbers because at that time they were spinning the fantasy that predators had no impacts – as they worked on improving wolf PR – and that would also justify the culls which they said were bad.
Now that wolves have been re-introduced to Yellowstone, and have decimated the elk, moose, deer, and even coyote populations there, that ‘Natural Regulation’ lie has been proven false – though they will never admit it.
They are still trying to blame the elk damage on climate change in Yellowstone, so this is no surprise.
The whole Yellowstone elk story (mirrored in this story) is one of the best examples of what completely politicized junk the post-normal pseudoscience called Conservation Biology is… the same ‘science’ concluded that polar bears were doomed.
And this university is fully stocked with the people behind the Yellowstone fraud.
Anyhow, too many elk overbrowsing songbird habitat does reduce the number of songbirds, but that was not the point of this puff piece.

Russ in Houston

The reduced snow pack? Maybe there are more elk and thus some of them are having to use less desirable winter habitat.

Scott Covert

They “mimicked the effects of more snow on limiting the ability of elk to browse on plants by excluding the animals from large, fenced areas”
Now a fence can mimic snow. They could have just tied the Elk to trees with long ropes and calculated the Elk radius. /Sarc.
Real results of the study… No snow AND no elk = result, not climate change. I can help them with the elk problem. One at a time.


Where is the study on the improvement of the environment where the Elk are no longer grazing because they are stayin at higher altitudes?

I’m just wondering what their range was during the LIA.

Theo Goodwin

Alan S. Blue says:
January 11, 2012 at 12:32 pm
‘And yet, nothing similar could -possibly- demolish the entire paleo-dendroclimatology by significantly affecting which trees are solely “temperature stressed”.’
Spot on. If Mann hears of this study, these guys will be banned from all peer reviewed climate journals.

Mike M

There ain’t much snow pack in Costa Rica but there sure seems to be a LOT more animals and a LOT more kinds of animals living there. What part of ‘warmer is better’ is that these nitwits do not understand?


Defund and DE-GRANT these pathetic panic merchants disguised as scientist and let them do it on their own dime. You’ll find they actually will come up with something other than climate change mimicked models that Could, should, may, might, possibly and 20 other vagary’s these fine upstanding AGW alarmist inject into every report. There are plenty of jobs at McDonald’s for these climate flippers.

They’re depicting elks as near-vermin and birds as victims.
Just another case of four legs bad, two legs better.


Nothing new here on the theoretical side, but the results quantify the degree to which the ecosystem is being perturbed which is important for management (e.g., thinning the elk herd) reasons if you want to preserve rare plants or keep habitat for songbirds. These kinds of studies have been done for many decades. With better technology, however, it’s possible to get more refined results and presumably do better resource management.

John West

Does the glass always have to be half empty?
“less snow means an increased ability to freely browse on woody plants in winter in areas where they would not be inclined to forage in previous times due to high snowpack”
So, there’s less browsing where the elk would normally be extensively browsing, spreading the “browsing pressure” across a larger population of trees. Seems like an improvement in the larger perspective.
IPCC AR5 bound.


Of course these weather patterns have never occurred in the past. They are unique for the 20 years studied. Horsepuckey.
The conditions in the 1930s had to be equal to or worse than those during the study’s period. Even so, the flora and fauna must have recovered between then and now so that the declines noted in the study could reoccur.
it is well known that animal populations and plant lives are variable depending upon numerous circumstances. One of the most influential is the amount of food available. one of the missing aspects in this study is a baseline for comparative purposes.


There’s one major problem with the premise of this whole study:
In North America (including Arizona), winter temperatures have not been getting warmer, they have been getting colder. Changes in snow cover are more likely due to changes in precipitation patterns than changes in temperature. The 2011 annual average temperature for the continental US was only 7/100 of a degree warmer than the average annual temperature of 1946.
The problem with stories like these is that they are evidence of a biased caused by assuming climate is warming even when and where it is not. For all practical purposes, there has been no “climate change” in Arizona in the past 65 year if one is to talk about annual average temperatures and winters have been cooling.

Pete in Cumbria UK

Maybe these clowns have actually discovered something – Climate Change can be halted by building fences.
Who’d have thunk it.

Theo Goodwin

Breaking News 2014:
The remaining residents of St. Petersburg, Florida, most of them retirees, are reported to be experiencing strange psychological problems. When asked for an explanation, local residents mutter only “Tourists cannot afford to come here any longer.” Climate scientists from around the world have descended on St. Petersburg and similar cities and towns known as “former tourist destinations” or, more colorfully, “ghost towns.”
The preliminary consensus among climate scientists is that nine years without hurricanes has caused a novel form of acute anxiety among local residents. Apparently, local residents suffer from an unshakable fear that St. Petersburg has lost the appeal of a tropical paradise because it has no hurricanes. According to Professor Neuter from Pin Stripe University, “The significance lies in the fact that humans and our economy are at the end of the same chain of cascading consequences.” (/sarc)


There is undoubtedly much left out of this press release, but what is presented here does not look good:
“The authors, USGS Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit scientist Thomas Martin and University of Montana scientist John Maron, mimicked the effects of more snow on limiting the ability of elk to browse on plants by excluding the animals from large, fenced areas.”
That experiment would determine the effect of elk browsing on plants – which is a bit odd, given that the effect of elk browsing on plants is both obvious and well studied. Why was another repeat of this oft repeated experiment part of this study?
On the other hand, left out of this press release is any discussion regarding the specifics of the experiment mentioned in this sentence:
“but it also experimentally demonstrated that declining snowfall indirectly affects plants and birds by enabling more winter browsing by elk.”
But no description of any such experiment is provided. When you have a description of an experiment that doesn’t match any of the study results, and a mention of an experiment that is not otherwise described, it leads one to believe that what you’re actually looking at is an experiment that doesn’t do what the authors claim it does, which in this case is to demonstrate the effect of snowpack on elk grazing.
Also conspicuously missing is any discussion of the effect on elk grazing distribution of factors other than snowpack – such as the introduction of wolves. Wolves are known to disperse elk from their preferred low-snowpack wintering grounds. How much snowpack is required to have an effect on elk grazing equivalent to that produced by an elk-proof fence around an exclosure? How would that level be affected by other factors such as wolf predation? What area of the mountain west has experienced a snowpack decline such as to remove that barrier? What is the flora and fauna habitat of those areas?
Those are the questions that would need to be answered in order to support the conclusions of the press release, yet none of those are mentioned in the press release. They probably arent in the paper itself, either…


Like all things climate science, pick your starting point….
“over the last 22 years as snowpack has declined”
Flagstaff receives an average yearly snowfall of 108.8 inches.
The heaviest annual snowfall on record since 1961 occurred in 1973. How many inches of snow accumulated? Answer: 210.0 inches
The earliest snowfall on record in Flagstaff was on September 19, 1965. The latest snowfall on record was on June 8, 1907.


“Now if we could only select for intelligence instead of breeding stupidity in our universities.”
Not seeing that as a possibility in the near future -way to much $$$ involved.

I don’t agree there – it was a long time ago but I seem to remember breeding as being a fairly inexpensive activity at uni.


Voters and taxpayers associations should take the funding rationale, by government, for studies about shit we already know, to task.
Does anthropogenic climate change need rewrite scientific reference texts with a eco-warrior spin?

Dr Burns

Scott Covert says:
January 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm
“I can help them with the elk problem. One at a time.” LOL
On topic: since birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, they have survived at least 65 mln years.
Do these people really think a little warming will harm or even end these persistent creatures?
I keep on wondering how these so called progressives can react so conservative to any change.
Conservatives have the name to be against change, but imho conservatives are open to it, as long as it goes naturally, which can not be said of progressives. They hate change. Unbelievable. Except for change they can believe in (, but which will not happen). Which proves my point btw.

R. de Haan

The USGS should concentrate on their core business, quakes, volcano’s and resources.
We’re drowning in Green ideologists and screwed up institutions. We’re fed up and can’t bear more embarrassments.


Has there been any variation in the population of elk over this period? Going by experience on the East Coast when hunting of whitetail deer was curtailed and populations exploded, maybe we are seeing a similar population boom of elk in Arizona causing an overgrazing condition. Deer in the East so stripped the forests that they were starving to death and were resorting to stripping gardens and field crops to the point where farmers had been given permits to kill dozens of deer on their property.
I do find some information such as this:

Elk hunting opportunities expanded almost annually as biologists and ranchers feared that Arizona’s elk population might now “rise out of control.” These concerns culminated in 1953 when 6,288 permits were issued and 1,558 elk were taken-more than 1,000 of which were cows. Because of concerns about the “slaughter,” elk permits were greatly curtailed in 1954 and remained below 5,000 until 1965, when more than 6,000 permits were again authorized. By 1967, elk permit numbers were exceeding 7,000, and the annual harvest exceeded 1,500 elk. Once again, elk permits were gradually lowered; although new hunts, including archery hunts, were being initiated.
By the mid-1980s, elk and elk permit numbers were again headed upward. This trend culminated in 1994, when nearly 11,000 elk were harvested-a number unimaginable just 20 years earlier. Since then, elk numbers and harvests have remained at a high level. This situation is expected to continue as wildlife managers and land managers continue to be concerned about habitat quality and elk-livestock competition.

So it would appear that elk populations were increasing over the study period. This would have increased grazing pressure on those areas. I am not convinced this study shows anything at all about climate change and isn’t more reflective of changes in elk populations and the impact of those populations on habitat over the study period. Attributing this to “climate change” seems to be a bit of a leap of faith.
Looking at what happened in Yellowstone when wolves were removed:

Indeed, local industry and environmental groups battled for years over the Yellowstone and Idaho wolf reintroduction effort. The idea of wolf reintroduction was first brought to Congress in 1966 by biologists who were concerned with the critically high elk populations in Yellowstone. Officially, 1926 was the year the last wolves were killed within Yellowstone’s boundaries, and over the succeeding decades, populations of elk and other large prey animals had soared, and new growth vegetation suffered as a result. This is due to ecosystem instability when keystone predators are removed. With wolves being at the top of the food pyramid, their absence let the elk population boom out of control. Soon deciduous woody species such as upland aspen and riparian cottonwood crashed as a result of overgrazing. This affected habitat for other species as well. Moreover, coyotes tried to fill in the niche left by wolves, but were unable to control the large ungulate populations. Booming coyote numbers, furthermore, also had a negative effect on other species, particularly the red fox.

I am not sure this piece really says anything about “climate change” at all except that “climate change” has become a handy “catchall” on which to blame any environmental change.

R. de Haan

Besides That I hate their new slogan.
Science for a changing world.
The slogan provides the USGS with more dynamic we expect from them as the world in geological terms is changing just as slowly s it always.
I do understand that waiting for the next quake and the next volcanic eruption can be a boring business but wasting precious time and money writing a garbage article really is a bridge to far.
Besides that I didn’t find a single piece of science in the entire article.


Global warming is good for elk!


never mind, these studies will be credible!
12 Jan: Times of India: TERI studying climate change impact on state
PUNE: The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has undertaken a study of the impact of climate change on the state in order to identify critical areas of concern and to come up with solutions to mitigate the loss.
TERI director general R K Pachauri told reporters on Wednesday that the exercise, which began nearly two years ago, will be completed in a year’s time. “Maharashtra has a long coastline and vast tracks of agricultural land, many of which are rain fed. It is already witnessing a rise in sea level and it is time the state initiates some measures,” Pachauri said. He said TERI field teams are collecting data which is being analysed and processed using the government’s supercomputer in New Delhi…
TERI is conducting similar studies in Rajasthan, Gujarat and West Bengal and will suggest solutions relevant to them, he said. “Issues such as climate change cannot be handled only at the central level. It needs the involvement of state governments as well as local communities, who are likely to bare the brunt in case of any extreme event.”
Pachauri earlier addressed a meeting of real-estate developers and industrialists to apprise them about the various developments under the Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (GRIHA) initiatives which TERI has designed for the ministry of new and renewable energy, Government of India. He said all future structures of government and semi-government bodies will have to adhere to the GRIHA standards and there is a move to make these standards mandatory for all constructions in municipal areas. He said 160 construction projects comprising 7.5 million sq ft of area are registered under the GRIHA initiative, 20 of them being from Pune. “TERI teams are helping these projects in complying with the expected standards and are also monitoring their progress.”…

Elks are destroying the habitats of other creatures. Perhaps we should rid the earth of elks?

jack morrow

I guess now that this is out they will introduce more wolves to cut back on the elk herds. What a bunch of phooey!


even more credible!
11 Jan: The Himalayan: Climate change in Himalayas: Appa’s quest
The 21-time Everest Summiter who lives in Utah, USA with his family,will spend four months trekking the hills of the country from January 15 from Ghunsha of Taplejung in Darchula.
“In 2009, when we were in Copenhagen for the climate change meeting where Nepal organised a rally of Everest climbers urging to save the Himalayas, we planned to travel from east to west of Nepal through the Great Himalayan trail and it took two years to make that happen,” said Dawa Steven Sherpa — two-time Everest Summiter who is accompanying Appa.
Melting of the Himalayas at faster rate is a fact and scientists have said that due to global warming the rate of melting would further increase the threat to billions of people residing near and downstream…
Prashant Singh, CEO of Himalayan Climate Initiative, is one of the designers of Explore Nepal concept and has been assisting the team. “Tourism is taken as enemy of climate as people emit carbon dioxide in a bid to make their travel luxurious, but in Nepal we don’t use vehicles as most of the routes are for trekking only, our electricity consumption is very low as most parts of the country still do not have electricity. So we can promote this east-west trail as environment friendly tourism,” said Singh…

Sean Peake

I would like to read the lame-o paper to see if it addresses a few points. First, Arizona elk having been going at it like bunnies since they were re-introduced into Arizona (the original elk population was extirpated around 1900) from Yellowstone starting in 1919 and off and on into the ’20s. With this increasing population comes the inevitable pressure on grazing lands, and I have seen no mention as to what the original population estimate was and whether or not present levels exceed it.
Second, Arizona’s elk populations are influenced by ENSO events (rangeview.arizona.edu/presentations/infomart_6-19-01.pdf), so it would be interesting to see when the study period is to see what phase ENSO was in (greener during El Nino, browner during La Nina).
Third, Arizona, and in particular its prime elk grazing lands, have had several large wildfires over the past few years, something like >800 sq. miles. While these haven’t directly affected elk mortality rates, it will have caused a shift in grazing territory. Plus, these fires weren’t a boon to the birdies either. The upside is that about two years after a major burn, the grazing lands return, in better, more productive condition that before the fire, and the elk will become like coke-fueled clubbers at Studio 54 in the ’70s, humping anything that moves in their new Eden. (Oh, the debauchery!) There would, however, be a significant change to the species of birds found in the area since the first and second generation of succession vegetation would be different than the flora that existed before the fire. It will take years for those original populations to return.
So lots of factors in play, but considering how twisted the authors’ logic is, I have a feeling some of these points were overlooked.


no doubt about where this one is headed:
11 Jan: Economic Times, India: Climate change: India’s informal economy neglected
Experts from the University of Oxford and Indian researchers are looking into the impact of climate change policies on India’s informal economy, and to diagnose ways of reducing CO2 emissions and improving jobs…
Project leader Barbara Harriss-White, Professor of Development Studies and member of the Contemporary South Asian Studies Programme at the University of Oxford, said: “Informal economies have been largely ignored in the debates about climate change.”
“We hope to develop new models that can be used to investigate the environmental effects of production and distribution systems that operate in the informal economy outside the reach of state regulation…


What happened to the elk displaced from the exclusion zones? There is no reference (that I can see outside a paywall) to them having died, so presumably they moved elsewhere and just carried on eating, defecating and breeding as normal. So, while “declines in plant and songbird populations were reversed in the areas where elk were prohibited from browsing” this is only half the story – the full story is the combined effect both on the exclusion zones and the alternative areas where the elk moved. Being in the UK I’ll bet a full 1 euro that the total effect was negligible!
Or perhaps we will shortly get news more that elk culls have dramatic effects on plant and songbird populations …

Joseph Murphy

LeeHarvey says:
January 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm
Quite possibly. There is some evidence that Elk seek out grasses when available. Although, it does not make up the largest portion of their diet.

Sean Peake

@Jesse: rid the earth of elks
No, let’s start with the Rotarians and move up 😉

Reg Nelson

I withholding judgement on this one until The Physicist runs his Elk per acre sub-routine (safe bet — it’s in the billions).

Scott Covert

Also another thing to consider is long fences give preditors something to crown prey against when hunting them in packs. They may have accidentally created a wolf feeding device.
Does this fence exclude other animals such as hares, deer, etc…? Small burrowing animals probably penetrate the fence but if there is plenty of food outside the fence, they might exist in fewer numbers inside the exclusion area. All factors. If rabbits use the exclusion area as protection from dogs and cats, rabbit poop is great fertilizer and might be at higher concentrations inside the exclusion area.
Great snow simulator, as real as GCMs.


Declining snowfall … due to what exactly?
Warming? … or … drought?


Montana snowpack keeps pace above average
March 07, 2011
BOZEMAN, MT – Montana’s mountain snowpack remains above average for the fourth consecutive month, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Snowpack in all areas is above last year at this time. February mountain precipitation was near average and was the fourth month in a row with average to above average accumulated precipitation. February mountain precipitation west of the Continental Divide was 106 percent of average and east of the Divide was 105 percent of average.


Montana snowpack still at record levels
Wednesday, June 1, 2011 12:00 am
The snowpack all across Montana remains at record levels.
etc etc etc…..you get the drift


So what I was saying about Mount Adams is this… whoops wrong thread…NOT
After Mt St Helens blew up and completely wiped out huge elk herds, thousands of…well it kinda did this:
“The magma inside of St. Helens burst forth into a large-scale pyroclastic flow that flattened vegetation and buildings over 230 square miles (600 km2). More than 1.5 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide were released into the atmosphere.[25] On the Volcanic Explosivity Index scale, the eruption was rated a five (a Plinian eruption).
Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, at 08:32 Pacific Daylight Time
The collapse of the northern flank of St. Helens mixed with ice, snow, and water to create lahars (volcanic mudflows). The lahars flowed many miles down the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers, destroying bridges and lumber camps. A total of 3,900,000 cubic yards (3,000,000 m3) of material was transported 17 miles (27 km) south into the Columbia River by the mudflows.[26]
For more than nine hours, a vigorous plume of ash erupted, eventually reaching 12 to 16 miles (20 to 27 km) above sea level.[27] The plume moved eastward at an average speed of 60 miles per hour (100 km/h) with ash reaching Idaho by noon. Ashes from the eruption were found collecting on top of cars and roofs next morning, as far as the city of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada.”
How them elk doing now? Somebody should really pay attention to history or something like that…or maybe it might do it again or something…
Oh, and according to PBS the 1980 “eruption initially took the shape of a giant mushroom cloud, signifying a blast 400 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima.”…but that is for another thread too…like how many people die in disasters or something.
Me thinks Mann is bad a predicting the future…oops typo?
Mike had his Nature Trick…does this count as a Hat Trick?