Species and Ecosystem Responses to Global Change

Science Center Objects

We work with a diverse collection of researchers, resource managers, and conservation practitioners to address the “how” and “why” questions that underlie species-and ecosystem-level responses to long-term weather patterns.  Although it is more challenging, this level of more-mechanistic understanding is critical for informing climate-adaptation actions and strategies.  We use a diversity of study designs, field instruments and methods, and analytical approaches to address questions in the nexus of basic and applied ecologies.  More recently, we have initiated research on adaptive capacity – defined simply as species’ natural ability to accommodate and cope with ecological stressors such as global change.  We are trying to illuminate in which taxonomic, geographic, and meteorological contexts that species and populations are more likely to use phenotypic plasticity, microevolutionary change, and dispersal abilities to persist in the face of weather variability and change.  Although we have commonly focused on wildlife species, our research also extends to numerous other ecosystem components.

American pika eating plants.

American pika eating plants.Public domain

Quantifying current determinants to distribution and abundance of montane animals, and projecting future distributions

Location(s): Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, northern New Mexico, the Columbia River Gorge, Glacier National Park, the hydrographic Great Basin, northern Sierra Nevada Mountains; northern portions of the Rocky Mountains and Cascade Range; Past research locations: Lava Beds National Monument, Craters of the Moon National Monument, and Alaska.


  • Document apparently suitable habitats where montane animals currently occupy, formerly occupied, or have never occupied;
  • Understand the factors and mechanisms underlying distributions and changes over time in distributions;
  • Quantify abundance of montane animal species, and identify the factors that correlate most strongly with abundance, across space and time; and
  • Address questions of connectivity, community ecology, vulnerability, conservation, and climate-adaptation management actions.

Collaborators: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. National Park Service, University of Nevada-Reno, University of Utah, Mount Holyoke College, University of Montana, University of British Columbia-Okanagan, Clark College, Oregon Zoo, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Dept. of Natural Resources, Oregon Dept. of Parks and Recreation, Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.

Funding: U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. National Park Service, Great Basin Landscape Conservation Collaborative, University of Nevada-Reno, Oregon Zoo, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.


Great Basin in bloom.

Dynamics of montane ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains: integrated hydrologic-ecologic-meteorologic approaches

Location(s): northern Rocky Mountains, spanning from southern Wyoming to southern Canada

Merge different types of factors into analyses seeking to understand what is driving the distribution of composition, status, and trend of mountain ecosystems. Factors include microclimate, derived (modeled) estimates of water balance, biogeographic factors (size and isolation of mountaintops), and land-use metrics, among others.

Collaborators: University of Montana, Mount Holyoke College, U.S. National Park Service, Parks Canada.

Funding: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service


Adaptive Capacity: the linchpin for understanding and addressing species vulnerability to global-change impacts

Location(s): worldwide, with particular focus on the USA

Objectives: create a framework to provide natural-resource managers and other conservation practitioners with a means to assess the ability of species within a local or regional biota to accommodate effects of recent global change, in order to support more-effective conservation planning and management.  The framework must be grounded not only on the collective expertise of the participating entities, but also on results from a worldwide literature review and meta-analysis on key relevant topics.  To achieve this, we will refine understanding of user needs related to adaptive capacity, by engaging federal and state agency representatives and integrate across sectors to define concepts.  Outcomes will include: 1) a literature review and meta-analysis of adaptive capacity in relation to long-term weather patterns; 2) identification of crucial gaps in knowledge related to "actionable science", as well as the types of conservation-management actions or inventory and monitoring that can be considered; and 3) other than the above-mentioned framework, publication of five peer-reviewed publications related to adaptive capacity.

Collaborators:  U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, workshop participants from diverse institutions across the globe.

Funding: U.S. Geological Survey, National Wildlife and Climate Change Science Center


Summit Canyon vegetation.

Phenological decoupling of food-web dynamics across sagebrush ecosystems

Location(s): western edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and surrounding landscapes


  • describe the pattern of temporal change in local measurements of air temperature, soil moisture, insect abundance, flower abundance, and nestling weight of Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows (which can serve as proxies for Greater Sage-Grouse; Rowland et al. 2006);
  • assess the relationship of reproductive-success (e.g. nestling weight and survival) parameters for these two species to the degree of trophic mismatch (i.e., amount of synchrony in date in nestling initiation of feeding vs. peak insect availability);
  • as an alternative or mediating factor, assess whether the structure and species composition of vegetation at within- and among-site scales that experience different management actions are related to those same parameters; and
  • use field data from across study sites to identify which sagebrush areas and ecosystem components may be most vulnerable to recent drought and long-term weather patterns

Funding: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Collaborators: University of Rhode Island; University of California, Santa Barbara; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; The Nature Conservancy; Univ. of Montana-Western; Animal Medical Center

“Conserving wildlife in mountain ecosystems: importance of a broad-scale perspective.” USFWS seminar series given at USFWS national headquarters and broadcast nationally via WebEx; May, 2012.


Niche shifts and energetic condition of songbirds in response to phenology of food-resource availability in a high-elevation sagebrush ecosystem


Boreal toad

Multi-scale modeling of amphibian occupancy patterns

Location(s): Great Lakes ecoregion, particularly nine National Park Service units within the region


  • Assess potential trends in site occupancy (ψ)
  • account for detectability in a percent-area-occupied framework e.g., water temperature, air temperature, Julian date, aquatic extent
  • Use data on the numbers of animals (e.g., the NAAMP calling index) of each focal species observed at each sampling location to complement information on occupancy

Funding: U.S. National Park Service

Collaborators: USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, the Field Museum of Chicago, Natural Resources Research Institute (University of Minnesota-Duluth)