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When the Waters Get Too Hot

Helping Wildlife Adapt to Climate Change
Y2Y Partner Story

By Jeff Welsch, Greater Yellowstone Coalition Communications Director

You know the saying: if you can’t handle the heat then get out of the kitchen. It's an easy solution if you have another room to move to, but if you are a fish living in warming waters your escape options are limited.

Creek
Warming water temperatures can negatively affect spawning fish. Photo Credit: Stephen Legault

This is the reality for many native trout living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and elsewhere in the Yellowstone to Yukon region. Our changing climate has led to faster snowmelt, earlier runoff in the spring, and lower and warmer rivers come summers. This is all bad news for trout and other species, including humans, who are reliant on clear, cool waters for sustenance and recreation.

So what’s an organization to do?

At the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), we are focused on adaptation with projects funded partially by Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative’s partner grant.

Building Stronger Streams

The structure of a stream and its banks contributes to the overall health of the water system. Cattle grazing near the streams edge chip away the land and erodes the structure.

cattle
Cattle grazing (Photo Credit: Karsten Heuer)

In such places as in the West Fork of the Madison River, Horse Creek and Ruby Creek in southwest Montana, and Crow Creek in southeast Idaho, we at the GYC are helping to restore streams and their banks by planting willows, which provides structure and support to the streams sides. Additionally, with the cooperation of landowners — we are adding fencing to divert cattle from this sensitive area.

Fencing - courtesy of GYC
Building a fence to protect a riparian area from cattle on Arasta Creek, a Madison tributary. Photo courtesy of Greater Yellowstone Coalition


Aquatic Crossing Structures

Many of you are familiar with the wildlife crossings that allow grizzly bears and other wildlife to safely cross busy highways like those found in Banff National Park, but did you know similar structures exist for aquatic creatures too?

Another way of enhancing native trout survival is by removing barriers to cooler higher-elevation. Fortunately for the native trout swimming through two southeast Idaho streams, we’ve removed migration-halting culverts and replaced them with bridges that allow them to swim to cooler waters.

What’s Good for Trout is Good for Grizzlies

Also benefitting from these projects are such climate-sensitive species such as grizzly bears, lynx and wolverines, which require the protective cover of trees and bushes to move safely across increasingly crowded landscapes.

A black bear in the Madison River valley ... naturally they need healthy riparian areas for migration and dispersal. Photo courtesy of Greater Yellowstone Coalition
A black bear in the Madison River valley ... naturally they need healthy riparian areas for migration and dispersal. Photo courtesy of Greater Yellowstone Coalition

This is especially important for Greater Yellowstone wildlife. These animals live on an ecological island separated from the wilds of central Idaho and northwest Montana by thousands of acres of private lands where such iconic species as grizzly bears, wolves and bison are largely unwelcome.

Improving stream corridors enhances their opportunity to reconnect with their species elsewhere; today, for instance, the Greater Yellowstone and Crown of the Continent grizzly bear populations are just 60 miles apart.

Small changes can have a big impact. Here at the GYC we are committed to making those changes happen on the ground. By removing impediments to wildlife migration and enhancing habitat, we provide wildlife immediate access to safe places - in the ecosystem and beyond.

Jeff Welsch is communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He can be reached at jwelsch@greateryellowstone.org.

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