In September, Natural Resources Committee Vice Chair Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), and members of the House of Representatives Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition including Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) traveled to Yellowstone National Park to see how climate change threatens the world’s first national park. Members of Congress met with National Park Service staff at sites throughout the park to examine the impacts of climate change on different habitats and discuss potential solutions.
Why did they make this trip, what did they learn, and what’s next? Keep reading. We’ve got the full story.
WHAT MAKES YELLOWSTONE SPECIAL?
Yellowstone National Park — the world’s first national park, home to more than half of the world’s hydrothermal features, winding streams, and unparalleled biodiversity — is facing significant threats from climate change.
Covering more than 3,400 square miles, Yellowstone National Park forms the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth. This means that weather in the park’s different habitats — including wetlands, hydrothermal areas, grasslands and alpine regions— vary greatly between seasons and elevations, creating an extremely dynamic ecosystem.
Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48 states. There is an intricate relationship between the park’s geological features, the abundance and distribution of plants and wildlife, interactions between species, and the quality of wildlife habitat. In winter, bison and other grazing animals often forage around the park’s hydrothermal areas, where vegetation remains uncovered by snow. Grizzly bears migrate to higher elevations to feed on whitebark pine nuts and prepare for hibernation.
Every species, regardless of size, plays an important role in maintaining a healthy and resilient ecosystem. These diverse species depend on different habitats within the park. The ability of these habitats to support Yellowstone’s unparalleled biodiversity, in turn, depends on species to perform various functions — like pollination or nutrient storage — that maintain habitat health. The loss of a single species or habitat can create a cascade effect that jeopardizes other species and habitats within the GYE.
Park staff understand these relationships better than anyone, and we should listen to them. As the Park website reminds us, “ Climate is one of the primary drivers of the processes that make an ecosystem look and function the way it does. Weather reflects the short-term conditions of the atmosphere. Climate consists of the long-term averages of daily weather, usually in 30-year periods. Change in climate can greatly alter ecosystems.”
Climate change in Yellowstone is no longer a distant threat. There have already been measurable impacts that threaten to fundamentally alter Yellowstone’s protected lands and treasured resources. Temperature increases are the main driving force behind the climate change’s damage to Yellowstone. Average temperatures in the park have increased at a rate exceeding that of the 1930s Dust Bowl over the last decade alone. By the middle of this century, Yellowstone’s average temperature is expected to rise between 2.9° and 5.4°F.
Warmer temperatures have already led to decreased snowpack, drier conditions, widespread die-offs of mature whitebark pine trees, invasive species outbreaks, and changes to the timing and rate of snow melt.
Here are just some highlights of climate change’s impacts on Yellowstone’s most treasured landscapes and wildlife.
Yellowstone National Park is home to over half of the world’s active geysers (as well as the largest active volcano in the world). Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park largely thanks to its extraordinary geysers, hot springs, steam vents, and mudpots. These hydrothermal features help form the foundation of Yellowstone’s ecosystem and are tied closely to the distribution of plants and animals in the park. Yellowstone is home to three plant species that only exist within the GYE — at least two of which are dependent on the unique habitat created by the park’s thermal features.
Climate change has already harmed the complex hydrothermal system’s ability to replenish itself with water. For the system to recharge with groundwater, the slow seep that occurs with snow is preferable to the quicker runoff-like conditions experienced with rain. As levels of snowfall and snowpack decline, there will not be enough water in the hydrothermal system. The park’s iconic features, such as the Old Faithful Geyser and the Mammoth Hot Springs, may dry up.
The park is currently documenting the status of its hydrothermal system by measuring the amount of thermal water and the total heat output for certain geyser basins. The park is also using thermal infrared imaging taken by aircrafts to document changes in the hydrothermal areas.
The largest documented fires in the Park’s history occurred in 1988, when a series of 50 fires burned approximately 800,000 acres, accounting for more than one third of the park. By the end of the 21st century, the hot and dry conditions that laid the groundwork for those fires are expected to be the norm in Yellowstone.
Forests cover 80 percent of Yellowstone National Park and provide habitat for wildlife such as lynx, grizzly bears, moose, and songbirds. Across the region, rising temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns have led to more bark beetle outbreaks and increasingly frequent and severe wildfires.
Climate change has already led to higher temperatures, drier conditions, and invasive species outbreaks that decimate Yellowstone’s forests. Studies have shown that climate change will lead to a significant decrease in forest cover within the park — with high elevation species like the whitebark pine facing the brunt of the impacts. Recent surveys of whitebark pine trees in the GYE found a 79 percent mortality rate for mature trees — largely due to increased outbreaks of invasive white pine blister rust and mountain pine beetles, as well as more frequent and severe wildfires. This loss of whitebark pines presents a serious problem for the species that depend on those trees, and on the park’s high elevation habitats.
The whitebark pine is a keystone species that reduces erosion, retains snow, and produces seeds that are a critical food source for grizzly bears and other wildlife. Whitebark pines grow at high elevations in areas with high winds and steep slopes where other trees often cannot grow. The loss of whitebark pines leads to accelerated erosion and altered snowmelt and snow retention patterns, which impacts stream flow.
Grizzly bears and other species depend on whitebark pine nuts for food. Every fall, grizzlies migrate to higher elevations in search of whitebark pine nuts that help them fatten up for winter hibernation. As whitebark pines disappear, increasing numbers of grizzlies are abandoning these isolated high elevation areas, searching far and wide for food while increasing the odds of human encounters and potentially fatal territorial disputes between bears.
Climate change has also led to earlier, wetter springs and hotter, drier summers that favor invasive plant species such as cheatgrass. There have already been major cheatgrass infestations in the Gardiner Basin, the warmest area of the park. As temperatures continue to rise, these invasive species are likely to outcompete native plants and spread into higher elevation areas. These high density areas of cheatgrass can alter wildfire regimes in the park and eliminate native plant communities — threatening the numerous wildlife species that depend on the native vegetation communities that currently exist within the park.
Loons are a key indicator of aquatic integrity for Yellowstone’s lakes and waters. They are extremely sensitive to changes in their habitat, and the park plays a critical role in regional loon population stability and persistence.
Loons prefer to nest on islands in wetlands and ponds to help safeguard against egg predation. In the GYE, climate change has decreased precipitation and increased temperatures, which could result in the decline of more than 40 percent of the region’s wetlands. These changes directly threaten wetland-dependent species like the common loon.
Fluctuations in water levels, likely caused by more rapid spring snowmelt, also threaten survival rates for common loons. Because of climate change, these events are expected to increase in frequency and severity. Common loons have relatively low reproduction rates and little ability to colonize new nesting areas. A reduction in nesting habit poses a significant threat to GYE’s common loon population. Yellowstone National Park hosts more than 70 percent of the State of Wyoming’s breeding loon population, and the common loon faces a particularly high risk of local extinction.
The park is continuing to build upon a 2012 study by analyzing trends in productivity, nesting success, and the number of breeding pairs to determine why some years are more productive than others for loon populations.
Glaciers, snowpack, and rainfall produce the water that flows through the streams, lakes, and rivers in Yellowstone National Park. As a result of climate change, increased temperatures and decreased precipitation have already led to the decline of wetlands in Yellowstone National Park. Trumpeter swans depend on these wetlands for for food and nesting habitat. As Yellowstone’s wetlands are drying up, so are the trumpeter swans’ food sources.
This decline in suitable wetland habitat may have contributed to the decline in the park’s resident trumpeter swan populations. In 1961, there were 72 resident swans in Yellowstone. In 2018, that number dropped to 24 resident swans. Todayin a break from decades of ecological precedent, Yellowstone is expected to a better rest stop for trumpeter swans than a home.
The park is currently undertaking an introduction program with trumpeter swans bred in captivity to supplement the existing population within the park. Park rangers restrict human activity in known swan territories and nesting areas, as trumpeter swans are particularly sensitive to human disturbances. Unfortunately, despite efforts by park biologists, the loss of wetland habitat and increasingly erratic spring weather induced by climate change may preclude swan recovery.
Changing wind patterns, droughts, and more frequent severe weather events caused by climate change all impact songbird migratory patterns and force birds to expend more energy during migration. Rising temperatures and changing weather patterns impact the timing and availability of food sources, nesting success, population size, and distribution for songbirds.
Songbirds in Yellowstone National Park are currently monitored through the North American Breeding Bird Survey, fall migration surveys, and a summer and early fall banding station. Songbird species in the park generally nest in four different habitats: willow stands, old growth forests, burned landscapes, and grasslands/sagebrush steppe. As all four of these habitat types are being altered by climate change, park biologists have implemented studies and monitoring methods to examine patterns in songbird population and distribution in response to their changing habitats.
Bison are the national mammal of the United States and the largest land-dwelling mammal in North America. They provide an important food source for carnivores and scavengers. Birds and bison have a symbiotic relationship. Birds such as the magpie and cowbird depend on the bison for food, feeding on the insects in its coat or those disturbed by its steps. Many plant species are dependent on bison as well. Bison play an important ecological role as grazers, increasing water, light, and nutrient availability for grasses and plants as they forage. Bison also help disperse native seeds and aerate the soil with their hooves as they eat, aiding plant growth.
Climate change is leading to rising temperatures and decreased precipitation that alters grassland habitats and bison migratory patterns. Recent studies have shown that the prolonged hotter, drier weather caused by climate change reduces nutrient quality in the grass and plants bison eat and, as the climate continues to warm, bison in North America are likely to physically shrink in size due to their altered diets.
Hotter, drier conditions have enabled the spread of invasive plant species, such as cheatgrass, within Yellowstone. These invasive species often outcompete native vegetation, which provide more valuable forage for bison, and degrade the habitat by reducing forage availability in the winter and increasing fire frequency.
Climate change is expected to alter bison migratory and breeding patterns, with increasing numbers of bison already switching their breeding ranges and traveling northward. The spread of climate-driven invasive plant species will force bison to migrate to areas with greater forage potential. This already means that climate change is causing bison to leave protected areas, like Yellowstone National Park, in search of food. Outside protected areas, bison are in jeopardy of being killed by sport hunters and ranchers.
Currently Yellowstone National Park is working with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to develop and study various stewardship options for bison. Park staff are also working with the National Park Service’s Washington, D.C., headquarters and the U.S. Geological Survey to initiate a resource stewardship study this fall that examines various climate change scenarios to develop a suite of potential management options.
Changes in elk populations are tied to the composition of plant and animal communities in Yellowstone National Park. Elk are an important food source for bears, mountain lions, and at least 12 species of scavengers (including bald eagles and coyotes). They make up about 85 percent of winter wolf kills. Competition with elk influences the diet and habitat of bighorn sheep, bison, moose, mule deer, and pronghorns. Elk impact vegetative production, soil fertility and plant diversity through foraging and nitrogen deposition.
Climate is one of the most important factors impacting the size and distribution of elk herds. The timing and routes of Northern Yellowstone elk migration are closely tied to seasonal vegetation growth and changes in snowpack. As climate change decreases snowpack and increases the spread of invasive species — most of which are unappealing food sources — elk are likely to start migrating earlier and to different areas where forage is more readily available. Park biologists have found that elk herds across the GYE are arriving at their winter ranges almost 50 days later than they did in 2001.
Elk tend to give birth during high-nutrition plant phases, allowing mothers and calves to build up fat reserves. The rising temperatures and shorter winter seasons associated with climate change will impact newborn elk survival rates, potentially resulting in a smaller food availability window and a mismatch in calving and peak plant nutrition. Decreased precipitation has hurt elk populations through drought-related effects on pregnancy and survival.
Since 1991, researchers have been examining the Madison-Firehole elk herd, the only herd that spends both winter and summer seasons within the park, to see how environmental changes impact reproduction and survival. The park coordinates with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and state wildlife agencies on elk management in the GYE.
Cutthroat trout are a native keystone species that provides an important source of protein for otters; mink; bears preparing for hibernation; and 16 bird species, including bald eagles. A recent study by park biologists found a significant relationship between the declines in cutthroat trout and osprey reproduction at Yellowstone Lake.
Snowmelt in the alpine areas of the Rocky Mountains provides 60–80 percent of the stream flow in the American West. In Yellowstone National Park, warmer temperatures and decreased snowfall have led to snowpack melting earlier in the year, disrupting native cutthroat habitat and facilitating the expansion of invasive lake trout. Climate change has led to an 89 percent decline in stream discharge, which decreases the availability of spawning habitat for cutthroats. Unlike the invasive lake trout, cutthroat trout spawn in tributaries that are becoming disconnected from Yellowstone Lake due to falling water levels in the Park’s streams and lake. Rising temperatures and decreased streamflow have also led to warmer waters that negatively impact cold water fish, like the cutthroat trout — adversely affecting the park’s native trout restoration efforts.
When Yellowstone National Park was originally established, about half of the park’s waters were naturally fishless. Typically, staff working to restore the park’s rivers and lakes would have restored the bodies of water to their natural, fishless state. However, staff have adopted a pragmatic approach to resource management in the face of climate change and started to protect bodies of water that would be suitable refuges for native fish species.
Every year, millions of visitors from across the world come to Yellowstone to see the park’s awe-inspiring landscapes and wildlife. Although the majority of park visitation occurs between May and October, climate change is leading to shorter winters and longer springs that lengthen the peak visitation season in the park. While this may seem positive, climate change means that an increasing number of visitors face wildfire and pest outbreaks.
Climate change is also impacting winter visitation in the park. Due to Yellowstone’s winter use plan, most park roads close to visitor traffic. Skis, snow coaches, and snowmobiles become the primary forms of transportation. Rising temperatures and decreased snowfall have started to restrict over-snow transportation, making it extremely difficult for visitors to enjoy Yellowstone’s unique winter landscape.
After touring Yellowstone, Rep. Haaland and other members of Congress joined Rep. Quigley in introducing legislation to restore the ban on plastic water bottle sales in national parks.
In 2017, the Trump administration reversed Obama-era guidelines that allowed the National Park Service to ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles in parks where possible. As a result of the original ban on plastic water bottles, 23 out of 417 national parks, including Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Zion National Park in Utah, implemented restrictions on bottled water sales. National parks had real success in reducing plastic waste. Zion eliminated the sale of 60,000 water bottles, or 5,000 pounds of plastic waste, by installing bottle-filling stations and selling affordable reusable bottles at concession stands. These efforts helped protect national park ecosystems.
Climate change and its effects requires a dual approach of mitigation and adaptation. Increasing energy efficiency, sequestering carbon emissions, and protecting old-growth forests that act as carbon sinks are just a few steps that can cut climate-warming emissions and reduce climate change impacts.
While mitigation is a key to addressing climate change, historic emissions already guarantee some significant impacts to our climate system. This is where adaptation comes in. Adaptation can take many forms, including protecting coastal mangroves to buffer communities against storm surges and safeguarding biodiverse forests to protect roads from erosion.
In the United States, public lands play a significant role in both climate mitigation and adaptation. According to a study by the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Geological Survey, federal lands capture nearly 4 percent of all U.S. emissions through carbon storage and are playing a growing role in mitigation efforts.
These lands safeguard ecosystems that provide critical services, such as forests that provide clean air and wetlands that filter our water. Studies show that approximately 67 percent of America’s coastline is protected by natural habitats, such as mangroves and wetlands, and that wetlands in the United States contribute $23.2 billion in storm protection services. However, these public lands benefits greatly depend on how we treat them. The loss of one hectare of wetlands leads to an average $33,000 increase in storm damage.
The Trump administration’s aggressive “energy dominance” policies reflect an attitude public lands may as well contribute to climate change, rather than survive for Americans and future generations to enjoy, if it means a few industry supporters stay happy.
Natural Resources Democrats will not stand for this. The federal government must manage our public lands to reduce fossil fuel-driven climate impacts.
The sooner we act on climate change, the less severe the costs will be to our communities and our public lands. Natural Resources Democrats know we have to listen to climate scientists and #ActOnClimate, which is why we kicked off the 116th Congress with a series of hearings examining climate impacts on public lands, wildlife, oceans, and indigenous communities.
- In February, we held a hearing on the disproportionate impact of climate change on our public lands and discussed solutions with renowned climate scientists. Check out hearing footage here.
- The Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands held a hearing to examine how climate change is impacting public lands recreation. Outdoor recreation enthusiasts of various political stripes from across the country– including the first Alaskan native to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, a fly-fishing guide in Glacier National Park, and an outdoor industry representative — all agreed that climate change is negatively impacting outdoor recreation and that we must #ActOnClimate to safeguard recreational opportunities for future generations. Check out the hearing here.
- This year, on the 100th anniversary of the Grand Canyon National Park, Chairman Grijalva introduced the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act to permanently protect the Grand Canyon region from the toxic impacts of uranium mining. Like Yellowstone, the future of the Grand Canyon is threatened by climate change. The Grand Canyon’s climate change action plan predicts increased drought, habitat fragmentation, more regular and severe wildfires and floods, and dwindling waterflows to the Colorado River — a critical water resource for nearly 40 million Americans and an outdoor recreation hotspot. Efforts to revive uranium mining in and around the Grand Canyon have posed serious public health and environmental risks to the region. Earlier this year, Congress passed into law the most sweeping public lands package in more than a decade, including a provision that withdraws more than 30,000 acres of public land just north of Yellowstone National Park from mining. Unfortunately, despite a decade-long effort championed by Chairman Grijalva, the Grand Canyon has yet to receive the permanent protections from mining granted to Yellowstone.
- Chair Grijalva and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) hosted a listening session with youth climate change activists when they were in D.C. for the climate strike. Here is some of what they had to say.
Despite the Trump administration’s constant attacks on our public lands, Committee Democrats led the way in passing the historic, bipartisan John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act (S.47), commonly referred to as “the public lands package.” This sweeping legislation designated 1.3 million acres of new wilderness, 350 miles of wild and scenic rivers, 693,000 acres of recreation and conservation areas, and 2,600 miles of federal trails — and saved taxpayers $9 million. The lands package also permanently withdrew over 370,000 acres of land from mining around two national parks — including Yellowstone!
As our population grows and climate change reduces the availability of suitable habitat for both humans and wildlife, the lands package protects habitats and ecosystems that provide safe havens for species and ensures continued provisions of the ecosystem services on which humans depend. The law is a monumental step toward addressing climate change and shows that Congress can work in a bipartisan manner to safeguard our public lands in the face of a changing climate.