Climate, Development, Biodiversity, and Glacier National Park
Glacier Park: The next century – Threats from all sides
By MICHAEL JAMISON of the Missoulian
WEST GLACIER – One hundred years ago, when Glacier National Park first became a
park, grizzly bears roamed along the spine of the Rocky
Mountains, north into Canada, south into Sun River country, west to the Cabinets and
east onto lowland plains. Wolves wandered, too, and
wolverines and big bull elk.
They had no idea someone had drawn a new political boundary onto their landscape.
They still don’t. “These critters move,” said park biologist Steve Gniadek. “It’s
critical they be able to cross in and out of the park.” But often they can’t, and
Gniadek has come to see Glacier as something of an island, an increasingly isolated
refugium surrounded by a growing moat of development.
“Every direction you look,” he said, “there’s something to worry about.” Especially
as the climate changes, because if Glacier’s island becomes uninhabitable, and the
moat too vast to cross, “some of these species, I believe, with enough time, could
just blink out.” Will Hammerquist’s finger traces across the map, drawing a slow,
counterclockwise circle around Glacier.
“You have Highway 3 to the north,” he says, “coal mines and coalbed methane
drilling.” Along the western edge, “backcountry sprawl and habitat fragmentation are
eating up your winter range.” Plans to pave rustic dirt tracks there, and new homes
up every draw. To the south, U.S. Highway 2 and an increasing Flathead Valley
population, trains and the railroaders who want to launch explosives into the park
to bring down avalanches. Oil and gas developers press up to the east, where the
Badger-Two Medicine country on the Rocky Mountain Front provides a conservation
Similar energy development already has industrialized Alberta’s front range, on
Glacier’s northeast corner. “You can go to every jurisdiction, right around the
park, and you’ll find that kind of push on the
boundaries,” Hammerquist said. He works for the National Parks
Conservation Association, and is “constantly fighting these fires on the borders.”
“The critters don’t have passports,” he said, “and they don’t pay
attention to park boundaries.”
Inside Glacier Park, “the whitebark pine is essentially gone as a food source for
grizzly bears,” said carnivore ecologist John Waller. “The salmon is essentially
gone. Today, the berries drive the bears.”
Huckleberries. Serviceberries. Buffaloberries.
“If something happens to those berries,” Waller said, “I’m not sure what the bears
have left to fall back on.” But why would anything happen to those berries? “Have
you ever heard of sudden oak death?”
Not long ago, down in California, a new pathogen popped up and wiped out the scrub
oaks. These aren’t the big oak trees of the East. These are bushy plants, not far
removed from the Vaccinium genus, which includes none other than the Montana
huckleberry. So what, exactly, enabled the pathogen responsible for sudden oak
death? No one’s sure, but a changing climate is on the short list of suspects. “The
interaction between climate and pathogens is sort of a crapshoot,” Waller said.
“They interact in ways that are hard to predict.”
And grizzlies, already robbed of so many key food sources, can’t afford a crapshoot.
So everyone, it seems, is talking about wildlife corridors, paths from here to
there, links that ensure genetic variation and, perhaps, an escape from the heat.
Park scientists are talking corridors. So are community leaders. So are the
governors of several Western states. “That’s because we still have the potential to
preserve some of these linkages,” said Leigh Welling. “Connectivity is absolutely
critical, and we have this natural
north-south pathway called the Rocky Mountains.” Welling used to be head of the
science and education center in Glacier Park. Now, she heads the climate program for
the National Park Service.
Both plants and animals, she said, are being pushed by the changing climate.
Glacier’s lucky, though. Critters here can move up as well as out. Still, their
historic ranges are shrinking, and when they try to move “they hit all these
disruptions on the landscape.” Those are the roads and mines and rails and
subdivisions Hammerquist mapped, the moat around Gniadek’s protected island. “What
we’re going to need in the future,” Welling predicted, “is unprecedented levels of
cooperation between jurisdictions.”
Between Canada and the United States and the provinces and the states and the first
nations and the land management agencies and the local
governments and the folk who just happen to live here.
“We’ll need to work together and coordinate like never before,” Welling said.
Waller isn’t really all that worried about his grizzlies, sudden oak death or not.
The bears, he said, are generalists, and likely will adapt and travel huge distances
if that’s where the food is.
“The real concern,E2 he said, “are the species that live in narrow niches.”
Canadian lynx. Wolverine. Animals that like persistent snow cover. “If that snow
disappears inside the park,” Waller said, “those species may not exist here
In the past century, Glacier Park’s year-round snow and ice coverage has shrunk by
an estimated 90 percent. Recently, the meltdown has accelerated; by 1998, Jackson
Glacier already had receded to a size not expected until 2010.
“You start melting those places away and you can see how wolverine range contracts,”
Waller said. “They could be gone in just a few years once the snow goes.”
Scientists, he said, tend to be a conservative lot, constantly challenging one
another’s positions and demanding better evidence. “So when the scientific consensus
is one of alarm, that should tell you something,” Waller said. One thing it might
tell us is the need for connections.
If Gniadek thinks of Glacier as an island, Hammerquist thinksof it as a hub. It’s
the center of a vast mountain ecosystem, with spokes leading out into nearby
wildlands. The Canadian Rockies, for instance, or the
Whitefish Divide, or the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
But he, like Gniadek, sees the moat growing and the outside pressures squeezing in.
He cites some successes. In 30 years of trying, he said, Canadian mining companies
have not been able to develop lands adjacent to the park. Talk of power lines and
hydroelectric dams in the park has ceased.
West-side neighbors have resisted the push to pave, and have zoned their rustic
neighborhood for 20-acre minimum lot sizes.
Park brass recently ruled that railroaders could not bomb the backcountry, and
east-side oil and gas development has been on hold for more than two decades now.
In Canada, the country’s largest-ever conservation deal has protected ranchland
habitat along the mountain front, and politicians south of the border just signed
the largest conservation package here, too, setting aside some 300,000 acres of
“We all love seeing these critters,” Hammerquist said. “That’s one reason we go to
parks. I think allowing the wildlife room to roam is a goal that every Montanan and
every Glacier Park visitor shares – we all want our children and grandchildren to
enjoy the wildlife that we enjoy.”
The way Waller sees it, future wildlife watching requires that today’s land stewards
do one of two things: either cool the climate, or protect the corridors that bridge
the development moat.
“And I don’t think it’s likely we can make it colder any time soon,” he said.
What are the chances, he wonders, of a river otter successfully crossing the
Flathead Valley, what with all the cars and dogs and subdivisions? Already, genetic
clumps are emerging, separated by highways and other development.
“Every little area of connectivity is becoming more and more important all the
time,” he said. Like that strip north of Whitefish, which connects the park with
wildlands near Eureka; or the north shore of Flathead Lake, which links the Jewel
Basin with Blacktail Mountain.
“These outside pressures absolutely affect what the park will look like in 100
years,” Waller predicted. “We’re chipping away at the available habitat. For now,
Glacier is big enough that species are persisting, but climate change is making it
“We should always be thinking about outside threats to the park,” he said. “But in a
time of abrupt climate change, we should also be having a very serious conversation
about how those threats might interact with other stressors to change Glacier Park
Reach reporter Michael Jamison at 1-800-366-7186 or by e-mail at