Climate change links fate of glaciers and rare alpine stream invertebrates in Glacier National Park

Science Center Objects

The extensive loss of glaciers in Glacier National Park (GNP) is iconic of the global impacts of climate warming in mountain ecosystems. However, little is known about how climate change may threaten alpine stream species, especially invertebrates, persisting below disappearing snow and ice masses in GNP. Two alpine stream invertebrates – the meltwater stonefly and the glacier stonefly – have been petitioned for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) due to climate-change-induced glacier loss. These cryptic species are found nowhere else in the world, but are restricted to short sections of cold streams fed by disappearing glaciers and permanent snowfields in GNP. Understanding how these species and critical alpine habitats are likely to respond to climate change is critical for conservation management and adaptation planning for freshwater systems undergoing rapid change. This project aims to investigate the current and future impacts of glacier and snow loss on the distribution, abundance, and genetic diversity of the meltwater stonefly and the glacier stonefly and other poorly known alpine aquatic invertebrates persisting below disappearing snow and ice masses in GNP.

Image: The Meltwater Stonefly

A Meltwater stonefly rests on a rock in Reynolds Creek spring on Logan Pass in Glacier National Park.Public domain

The objectives of this project are to:

  1. Determine the current status and distribution of ESA-petitioned endemic stoneflies (the meltwater stonefly and the glacier stonefly) and other rare alpine invertebrates in GNP;
  2. Assess the current and future vulnerability of alpine invertebrate species and communities to climate-change-induced glacier and snow loss;
  3. Provide decision support tools and information to help managers prioritize and implement effective climate adaptation strategies in GNP and across the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem;
  4. Help GNP develop interpretive materials for the NPS to inform visitors of the importance of alpine/glacial stream systems, their communities, and how these processes relate to downstream human uses such as such as tourism, agriculture and industry; and
  5. Develop additional opportunities for public education and outreach, including public lectures, field classes, classroom visits, publications and on-line information, and publication of a new brochure for park visitors.   

This project will serve as a worldwide model for understanding the realized impacts of climate warming on mountaintop species and ecosystems; inform policy and management decisions; design long-term monitoring programs; provide additional transformational opportunities for public education and outreach; and develop conservation delivery options in response to climate change and other important cumulative stressors.


Funding: USFWS, USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Center, Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative

Collaborators: James Boyd (USFWS, Helena, Montana), Chris Downs (NPS), Ric Hauer (University of Montana), Gordon Luikart (University of Montana), Scott Hotalling (University of Kentucky)