Climate change threatens Yellowstone region: report

SALMON, Idaho Wed Sep 28, 2011 6:57pm EDT

1 of 2. The Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest in the United States and third largest in the world, and it's colored bacteria and microbial mats in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, June 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart

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SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A warming climate is imperiling the iconic wildlife and landscapes in the Yellowstone National Park region, two environmental groups said in a study.

The report by Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and Greater Yellowstone Coalition released on Tuesday shows temperatures in the past decade in the Yellowstone area have exceeded the rate of warming worldwide compared to the 20th Century average.

Left unchecked, climate change is likely to transform the greater Yellowstone area, which includes parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana and encompasses two national parks, six national forests and three wildlife refuges, the report said.

The Yellowstone National Park region is one of the world's last largely intact temperate ecosystems.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is a conservation organization that works to protect the lands, waters and wildlife of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization is a nonprofit working to reduce climate disruption and its impact on the interior West.

Warming in the area could increase the frequency and severity of wildfires, strip forests of moisture-dependent trees such as aspen, lower water in mountain streams with world-class trout fisheries and damage areas vital to threatened species such as grizzly bears, the study suggests.

"Threads are already being pulled out of the glorious tapestry that is the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and it has lost some of its luster," said Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and a lead author of the report. "It's up to us to preserve this marvelous, magical place for future generations."

James Taylor, senior fellow for environmental policy for the Heartland Institute, a free-market public policy organization based in Chicago, took issue with the report's findings.

"Every time a group makes alarmist predictions about global warming, their predictions are supported solely by speculation and biased models while running counter to real-world facts," Taylor said, adding that those facts undermine statements about more droughts or wildfires.

He said temperatures have remained essentially flat for the past 10 to 15 years.

But environmentalists say a worst-case projection shows summertime temperatures at Yellowstone National Park soaring by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2099, according to an analysis in the report of government weather data and modeling by top climate scientists.

"That would mean future summers as hot as the Los Angeles metropolitan area have been in recent years," Saunders said in a telephone news conference.

Sweltering summers and dry winters would be devastating to already ailing alpine trees such as whitebark pines, which produce nuts crucial for grizzlies, and rare, snow-dependent animals such as the Canada lynx, said Saunders, former deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Interior Department.

The report, which relied on peer-reviewed research by government and university scientists, should serve as a wake-up call about the Yellowstone area, said Scott Christensen, climate director with the Montana-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition and co-author of the study.

Failing to reverse the trend could damage the region's $700 million annual tourism economy, the authors said.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune)

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