Science in Glacier National Park

Science Center Objects

Glacier National Park (GNP) is considered a stronghold for a large diversity of plant and animal species and harbors some of the last remaining populations of threatened and endangered species such as grizzly bear and bull trout, as well as non threatened keystone species such as bighorn sheep and black bear. The mountain ecosystems of GNP that support these species are dynamic and influenced by landscape scale phenomenon such as forest fire and climate change, as well as development and land use practices. And the Parks iconic namesake glaciers are receding at an unprecedented rate. For almost three decades scientists with the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center’s West Glacier Field Station have provided scientific information needed to manage and restore the ecosystems and associated plant and animal communities in and around GNP.

A meltwater stonefly larva (Lednia tumana) sits on a cobbled snow fed stream in Glacier National Park.
A meltwater stonefly larva (Lednia tumana) sits on a cobbled snow fed stream in Glacier National Park. The species is threatened by climate warming induced glacier and snow loss and has been petitioned for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act due to climate-change-induced habitat loss.(Credit: Joe Giersch, USGS. Public domain.)

AQUATIC SPECIES AND ECOSYSTEMS

Assessing the impacts of mining in the Transboundary Flathead and Kootenai River systems: The Transboundary Flathead and Kootenai Basins in Montana and British Colum­bia host some of the most diverse and unique native aquatic ecosystems throughout North America. Despite the historical and ecological value of the region, the headwaters in the Flat­head were targeted for coal mining, which may threaten water and habitat quality, migratory fish populations, and aquatic life downstream. A history of coal mining and coalbed methane extraction in the headwaters of the Elk River, and prelimi­nary data from the North Fork of the Flathead River suggest that upstream land use practices are producing sediment and water pollution that degrade waters downstream. Since 2008, the USGS has led an aquatics research project, working with Federal, State, and International partners, to help understand the effects on species and aquatic ecosystems and to provide information to support of the Transboundary Flathead and Kootenai Ecosystems.

Climate change and rare alpine stream invertebrates: The objectives of this project are to 1) determine the current status and distribution of ESA-petitioned endemic stoneflies 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 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 to inform visitors of the impor­tance of alpine/glacial stream systems, their communities, and how these processes relate to downstream human uses; and 5) develop additional opportunities for public education and outreach.

Conservation introduction of threatened bull trout: USGS, NPS, and Montana State University completed a recent study to assess the feasibility of conserving imperiled bull trout populations through translocation of specific populations into stream and lake habitats in GNP. This decision-making framework provides a flexible platform to help managers make informed decisions for moving threatened fishes into potential refugia for conservation and recovery programs. The suitabil­ity of potential translocation sites was evaluated and the final assessment was based on a scoring system that evaluated each potential site, using criteria based on characteristics represen­tative of highly suitable habitats. This framework was then applied to evaluate the proposed within-drainage translocation of three bull trout populations in GNP, including the Logging Lake system.

Experimental suppression of invasive lake trout: The overall goal of this project is to protect GNP’s ecologically unique bull trout populations from further declines and poten­tial extinction and rescue an imperiled bull trout population. Specifically, this collaborative USGS and NPS research project will assess demographics of the lake trout population and use this information to inform and implement experimental remov­al and control alternatives to reduce or eliminate competitive interactions in the Logging Lake system and other lakes in GNP. This information is critical to understanding the feasibil­ity of suppressing nonnative lake trout in a small, backcountry lake that contains native bull trout. Results will be applied to management of other lakes in GNP and possibly other systems throughout the native range of bull trout.

Genetic status and distribution of native westslope cut­throat trout (WCT): The project will use new and innovative molecular DNA techniques to develop information necessary to understand the genetic status and distribution of WCT in GNP, and will develop specific management alternatives to reduce or eliminate these threats and protect remaining popula­tions. The specific objectives are to 1) map the distribution of WCT and hybridization in GNP; 2) assess spatial and temporal patterns of hybridization and relatedness among WCT popula­tions; and 3) develop site-specific management alternatives for conservation and protection.

 

Mapping the glacier's edge in Glacier National Park.
Mapping the glacier's edge in Glacier National Park.(Public domain.)

CLIMATE CHANGE IN MOUNTAIN ECOSYSTEMS (CCME)

Glacier Research: As Glacier National Park’s namesake gla­ciers recede, CCME staff are monitoring many of the park’s glaciers to determine the causes of change, assess their eco­logical and hydrological effects, and predict future changes and effects. Intensive research to determine the mass balance of Sperry Glacier will determine whether small cirque glaciers like Sperry can serve as reliable indicators of current climate variability. Analysis of aerial photography, repeat photogra­phy, and glacier margin surveys document the rapid retreat of these mid-latitude glaciers as increasing temperatures influ­ence mountain ecosystems worldwide.

Snow and Avalanche Research: Since 1991, CCME staff have conducted snow surveys throughout Glacier National Park. These data have contributed to regional climate change and hydrologic models. Snowpack characteristics have also been evaluated in relation to avalanche forecasting and plowing of GNP’s Going to the Sun Road efforts. Studies of natural snow avalanches reveal connections with large-scale climate and wildfire patterns as well as the influence on the creation of characteristic habitat vulnerable to climate change.

Landscape Change Photography: Repeat photography is being used by the CCME program to document landscape change. Glaciers have been the primary focus of this park-wide survey and this collection of repeat photographs, available for download on the CCME website, have been used to illustrate the effects of climate change in venues across the globe. These powerful images, with their inherent ease of interpretation, have become icons of climate change. Researchers will continue to expand the collection of repeat photographs of glaciers as well as panoramic photos from fire lookouts in an effort to document landscape change in this period of dramatic climate warming.

 

The mother bear had just left this young bear in Glacier National Park. Our project aims to determine what happens to bears.
A mother bear had just left this young bear in Glacier National Park. USGS research aims to determine what happens to bears once they leave thier mother.(Credit: Tabitha Graves, USGS. Public domain.)

GRIZZLY BEARS

How are huckleberries likely to respond to drought and climate change?  Huckleberries comprise over 50% of the grizzly’s diet in the late summer when bears are fattening up for hibernation and are a keystone species, also supporting birds, small mammals, and pollinators. However, the interacting effects of drought, weather, and forest structure are only poorly understood. Pilot studies suggest that in warm, dry, early springs, which are expected to occur more frequently, at most places shrubs produce fewer and smaller berries. However, in some places, average or even above average numbers of berries ripen. This suggests that spatially-explicit models could greatly inform management. We would like to sample across the northwest and build predictive decision tool maps to inform options to manage and protect highly productive shrub-fields under future weather scenarios.

How can we track the trend of the grizzly bear population?  We are using 2 approaches to learn whether the numbers of bears are increasing, decreasing, or stable and develop inexpensive monitoring techniques. Both are based on sampling the genetics of bears through their hairs. We sampled hair from trees that bears rub on across an 8 million acre study area and are conducting a spatial capture recapture analysis, which will allow us to assess how the density of bears is changing across the ecosystem. Our second approach asks whether a genetic metric, effective population size, can robustly act as an index of trend.

How do habitat and human development influence grizzly bear dispersal? By creating a grizzly bear family tree, we can learn about the ways that grizzly bears disperse through the landscape. For instance, we recently learned that 3 areas with previously lower genetic diversity in the southern parts of the ecosystem, have increased in genetic diversity and that this is largely influenced by dispersals into the area. Next, we would like to quantify the influence of various landscape features on the probability that bears will disperse into one area versus others, with the goal of identifying places to conserve or restore to ensure connectivity across barriers like highways and between large and small populations of bears.

 

BIGHORN SHEEP

Bighorn sheep in Glacier NP.
(Public domain.)

Bighorn Sheep in and near Glacier National Park: Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep are an iconic alpine ungulate. Although, most populations in Montana are small (<100 individuals) and isolated, there are likely over 1000 bighorn sheep in Glacier National Park, Waterton Lakes National Park, and the Blackfeet Reservation. Bighorn sheep across the west are vulnerable to diseases such as pneumonia, but we know little about the susceptibility of these herds to disease. We are studying the bighorn sheep genetics, habitat use, movements, and monitoring strategies, to inform management. Specifically we are asking: 1) How and to what extent do bighorn sheep move across the parks? 2) What does this tell us about protecting these sheep from disease? and 3) Can we monitor bighorn sheep less expensively?