As average temperatures rise, the Yaak is rapidly transitioning from a snow-based to rain-based climate. Shifting precipitation patterns are impacting the volume and timing of watershed flow and increasing the frequency of drought-dependent forest diseases, insect outbreaks, and wildfire. These effects are exacerbated in the Yaak by unchecked logging and roadbuilding. Despite all this, the Yaak Valley is a biologically rich and diverse ecosystem with large pockets of the landscape showing a unique resilience to climate change.
The Yaak Valley Forest Council Climate Refuge Program seeks to identify, protect, and restore the landscape and species of the Yaak that are sensitive and uniquely resilient to the effects of climate change. We utilize climate-relevant topographic, hydrologic, and species-based criteria to locate these climate refugia, guide conservation goals, inform management action, and conduct habitat restoration.
The Yaak Valley Forest Council believes this makes the wild and climate-resilient Yaak a strong candidate for the recently announced effort to conserve 30% of America’s land by 2030.
What are climate refugia?
The Yaak Valley Forest Council is a member of the Refugia Research Coalition, a group of scientists and concerned conservationists focused on identifying and preserving climate refugia Nationwide. Climate refugia are defined as “areas that remain relatively buffered from climate change over time and enable the persistence of valued physical, ecological, and socio-cultural resources”.
The Yaak’s complex and diverse terrain combines high elevation peaks and alpine meadows with broad valley bottoms and old-growth forests. High winter snowpack recharges Yaak aquifers, sustaining cold fresh-water springs and the seasonal flooding of countless streams and narrow drainages by heavy snowmelt. The topo-diversity found in the Yaak Valley is full of refugial potential: niche pockets that locally shelter discrete species communities. The Yaak is home to more than a quarter of all Montana species of concern, including one of five subpopulations of grizzly bears left in the state. Remote from human population centers, the Yaak is ideally situated as a refuge and migratory stepping stone in a mountainous corridor system that runs from the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness in the south to the Canadian Purcells in the north.
YVFC Climate Refuge Program goals
- Identify, map, and preserve climate refugia within the Yaak.
- Collect long-term wildlife and climate-relevant geochemical field data to inform site and species-specific conservation recommendations.
- Target habitat restoration activities within climate refugia.
- Provide data and science-driven conservation oversight to agency land management within Yaak climate refugia.
- Establish conservation partnerships to protect migratory corridors between the Yaak and climate refugia in nearby watersheds.
Mapping of climate refugia
The Yaak Valley Forest Council is using climatic, topographic, silvicultural, hydrologic, and land-use data to develop GIS maps and analyses of the Yaak's climate refugia. The resulting maps will guide conservation efforts to promote long-term maintenance of stable climatic conditions in larger refugia and targeted microrefugia.
Preserving water is the key to reducing wildfire and forest disturbance
The Yaak is an ecosystem defined by water, and these hydrologic reserves are key to maintaining and providing microrefugia for a variety of aquatic and terrestrial species. The Yaak Valley Forest Council is expanding our Headwaters and Forest Watch field efforts to exhaustively map these resources, including springs and seeps, found throughout the Yaak watershed. These hydrologic reserves provide boundaries for another important type of refugia – disturbance refugia. Forests surrounding hydrologic reserves are less likely to burn and more likely to produce trees resistant to insect or fungal infections. By identifying the locations and ecosystem characteristics of hydrologic reserves in the Yaak watershed, we are preparing our conservation efforts to deal with climate-induced increases in fire and insect outbreaks.
Preserving lands to offset climate change impacts on soil and water chemistry
Along with increasing sediment loads from decades of clearcutting, climatic effects on stream water chemistry and temperature can rapidly expose the Yaak's pristine water systems to algal blooms, species invasions, and transmission of fish diseases. We will measure geochemical data relevant to species habitat quality and responsive to climate change, including soil and stream pH, temperature, and water quality.
Conservation of Yaak climate-sensitive species diversity
The Yaak Valley Forest Council will develop conservation recommendations that direct greater agency management consideration for the habitat needs of climate-sensitive species. By accounting for species needs, we can protect and better manage our lands to decrease the probability of population fragmentation and extinction.
The Yaak is home to at least three amphibian and two reptile species designated as Montana species of concern. With global amphibian extinction rates higher than any other taxonomic group, preserving amphibian and reptile habitats in the Yaak is imperative.
Westslope cutthroat trout and Columbia redband trout are found in the Yaak River watershed and are at high risk of extinction through habitat fragmentation, sedimentation, and hybridization with non-native species. We utilize non-invasive genetic testing of water samples to determine species distributions. The resulting data will critically influence future watershed restoration plans once combined with our existing fish barrier, temperature, and discharge database.
The compounding effects of climate change and habitat fragmentation have led to staggering declines in North American bird populations. Old-growth dependent songbirds are amongst the most threatened species. The loss of mature forests from unchecked logging and drying climatic conditions is responsible for declines in nearly half of all forest bird species of the Pacific Northwest in the last 30 years. We will focus field efforts on identifying avian biodiversity hotspots for preservation and guide conservation recommendations to preserve critical forest habitats.
Pika, a tiny montane rabbit adapted to wet alpine habitats, live in the Yaak and are at an elevated risk of regional extinction from climate change. Due to their narrow thermal limits which make them incapable of withstanding high temperatures between neighboring montane habitats, pikas are in danger of “peaking out” as they follow climatic shifts up elevation gradients. The Yaak Valley Forest Council will tailor conservation management guidelines to preserve and restore timber and groundwater resources surrounding pika habitat in the Yaak. This will offset the speed of local climate change and make it possible for these populations to persist.