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Manage Mountainous Habitats for Climate Change

Mountainous — high elevation — habitats are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, because species often have no choice but to move to higher elevations. Those species already existing at high elevation habitats may literally run out of space.

Climate Change Impacts: Current and Predicted

Mountainous habitats can be found in eastern, western and Pacific states, including New England, Alaska and Hawaii. The impacts of climate change will vary based on the location, elevation and species composition, but may include species migration and extinction, reduced snow cover and the earlier arrival of spring, among others.

Observed and predicted climate change impacts to mountainous habitats may include:

  • Diminished snowfall and snow cover, as well as a shorter winter season. This may contribute to a greater risk of drought and fire in the summer months, and the loss of snow-dependant recreational activities in the winter months.
  • Earlier spring floods, and/or stronger and more frequent flooding. The overall amount of spring runoff may also decline, as winter snowpacks become smaller.
  • Greater risk of erosion and sedimentation.
  • Species — both plants and wildlife — are already shifting their ranges to higher elevation habitats. Some species may lose a significant percentage of their current range, or may become regionally extinct.
  • Greater risk of disease and insect pests, including the potential for these stressors to shift their ranges into regions where they previously could not survive.

Additional information about predicted climate change impacts to mountainous habitats, ecosystems and wildlife can be found in the following places:

Recommendations for Adaptation

Warmer winters, decreased snowpack and the encroachment of new species all present serious challenges to the plants and animals that rely on high-elevation habitats.

Land trusts that manage mountainous habitats may wish to:

Specific recommendations for the adaptation of mountainous habitats to climate change include:

  • Assess vulnerability of habitat(s) to climate change impacts, such as earlier snowmelt, increased fire risk or dryer summers. Note: these impacts will vary by region and ecosystem.
  • Determine whether currently protected habitats are likely to shift their range to higher elevations. If so, consider the feasibility and value of extending the protected area’s boundaries to include this new territory.
  • Increase the overall health and resilience of existing habitats by removing invasive plants, restoring native species, and protecting habitats from development and other stressors.

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