Scientist Spotlight: Brian Miller & Planning for Uncertain Futures in U.S. National Parks

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Learn about the work and research of Brian Miller, research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey's North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center. 

Brian Miller presenting

Miller presenting historical climate information during a scenario planning workshop with Devils Tower National Monument. Credit: NPS

“Science is something I’ve always had a passion for, but science for science’s sake isn’t always enough,” says Brian Miller, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center (NC CASC).

“My overarching goal is to conduct research that is directly relevant to people who are trying to adapt to changes occurring in the climates and environments around them,” he says.

Miller was introduced to climate science during his dissertation research in East Africa, where he studied relationships between Indigenous livelihoods, conservation, environmental changes, and drought. He attributes his current understanding of climate change, and the impacts of climatic changes on human-environment relationships, to his work at the NC CASC. His job allows him to work directly with land and wildlife managers and tailor his research to resources—such as an animal or plant of interest—that are most relevant to different stakeholders in various regions of the country. Miller has also collaborated with the National Park Service (NPS) and other USGS scientists to develop and apply new ways to conduct scenario planning. Miller says these efforts “reflect the CASC network’s drive for connecting science to managers.”

“Scenario planning is a participatory process, which means scientists are sitting in a room with park managers, staff, and subject matter experts,” Miller explains. “We, the scientists, want to guide managers in using the most relevant, plausible, and challenging scenarios in their management of resources.”

According to Miller, scenario planning is something we are already familiar with. To wit, this is the process of making plans using imperfect information about the future. For example, if the weather forecast predicts a 50% chance of rain and you decide to bring an umbrella to work, you are planning for a rainy scenario. You are making one of several possible choices based on the available information, even if that information does not provide a clear idea of what conditions you will face.

Just as you might check the weather forecast to determine what to wear or bring to work, park managers might try to gain a better sense of when, where, and how climatic changes could unfold and affect the resource they manage, by looking to information from climate models. This need for identifying potential future changes in climate has resulted in increased collaboration between managers and scientists like Miller, who are trained in using information from climate models to identify the range of different potential future climate conditions for a particular area and set of resources.

“I think we work pretty seamlessly as a team,” says Miller. “Folks at the NPS Climate Change Response Program are great at extracting relevant information from downscaled climate data. At the NC CASC, we are developing tools we hope will help streamline that process. By working closely together, we can improve the methods that we both use to address management concerns.”

Devils Tower

Devils Tower National Monument. Credit: Brian Miller

Scenario planning starts with identifying the primary management concerns and key resources of a given park, particularly those resources and concerns which are sensitive to climate. For instance, some resources are vulnerable to heavy precipitation, while some are sensitive to extreme heat. Miller and other scientists can combine historic and current information about these types of relationships with information from climate model projections for a given area. Miller and his colleagues will typically select three or four projections—those which capture the greatest divergence in the climate variables to which resources are most vulnerable—to summarize and deliver to NPS managers and staff, like in this example from Devils Tower. The next step is determining how a key resource would be affected should any of those potential futures come to pass, which is valuable to the development of appropriate climate adaptation strategies.

To turn climate information into a useful set of scenarios, scientists and managers work together to describe how resources would respond to those predicted climatic changes. Miller describes scenarios as “a combination of climate information and resource responses. Park managers use their place-based knowledge to help us understand what those climate futures would mean for their resources.”

The scenarios are then used to test management strategies in a process akin to flying a model airplane in a wind tunnel.

“A management strategy is like an airplane, and each scenario is like a different set of conditions in the wind tunnel. The wind tunnel allows you to test out whether or not the plane will perform well under all the conditions it might face, and if it crashes, you can go back to the drawing board and make adjustments in order to be successful,” says Miller. “There may be a potential future for which current management strategies would be ineffective, which prompts managers to tweak their strategies.”

An illustrative example of this complicated process lies in a case study for these endeavors, which took place in Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. There, a few natural springs in the park were identified as key resources, vital to park wildlife and vegetation. Some of these springs had been “developed” with infrastructure, which altered the natural flow, and management had considered dismantling or modifying that infrastructure to restore natural conditions. After implementing the scenario planning process, one climate projection portrayed a hotter and drier future for the region surrounding Devils Tower, potentially causing flow of the park’s natural springs to decrease dramatically. It was also determined that the infrastructure that park management had considered dismantling would actually be instrumental in preserving a crucial surface water source if that hotter, drier future became a reality. Due to these findings, Devils Tower managers have decided to leave the infrastructure around the springs in place.

Some NPS engagements require additional technical work like modeling resource responses to climate and management. In conjunction with a scenario planning effort for Badlands National Park, Miller led an analysis of grassland responses to various climates and management alternatives. Using model simulations, Miller and his team assessed how varying prescribed fire, invasive species detection and treatment, and the size of bison herds that graze there would impact the type and growth of vegetation under different future climate scenarios.

“These simulations act like a virtual lab where we can play out what would happen to different landscapes under one climate future versus another, and under different management strategies,” he says. “It’s sort of like a stress test where we foster discussion on how to prepare for each future.”

For instance, his Badlands work highlighted important management tradeoffs between the number of bison and vegetation composition.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park’s Northern Range

Bison in Yellowstone National Park’s Northern Range, where scenario planning work is currently underway. Credit: Brian Miller

“It’s important to keep vegetation around for wildlife during dryer times, but there are implications for the vegetation as well,” says Miller. “Having a more conservative herd size may keep more vegetation on the landscape, but you might also end up with an increase in undesirable or invasive plants.”

Currently, Miller is combining different modeling techniques to make such estimates more realistic and relevant. This integrated modeling approach is likely to be useful to many national parks, like Dinosaur National Monument (DINO), where livestock graze on the landscape. The NC CASC and NPS are now working on innovative approaches for bringing climate science into grazing management plans.

“At the NC CASC, we work to deliver tailored, relevant climate information to managers in the national parks, other DOI bureaus, and Tribes, including information on how these changes may impact their resources,” says Miller. “With NPS, we are now integrating that information directly into their planning processes.”

The initial collaborative project between the NC CASC, NPS, and USGS unfolded in the northern Great Plains, but results and lessons-learned from subsequent projects (e.g., at Wind Cave National Park) are expected to propel scenario planning into NPS resource stewardship strategies nationwide. Miller reflects that this work has opened his eyes to the nuanced role of humans in the natural world.

“Humans are, indeed, part of these natural systems,” he says. “Part of my job is getting to know managers and what they do to steward the landscapes they work in. Watching our science be folded into that management is really satisfying.”

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Supportive parents and “great teachers” fostered Miller’s natural science interests early on, which included biology, evolution, and ecology. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and his Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he also worked at the Carolina Population Center. His dissertation focused on how conservation areas and land use changes have affected pastoralists’ access to and use of drought resources in East Africa.

Check out some of the photos from his adventures below!