How should “Flathead National Forest 2.0” look?

In the northwestern corner of Montana just next to Glacier National Park sits the 2.4 million acre Flathead National Forest. It’s a part of the massive and biodiverse “Crown of the Continent” ecosystem, and is part of a broader collection of protected areas stretching all the way down to Yellowstone. It’s home to more than one thousand native plant species, 70 mammals, and 260 birds. It’s home to iconic American megafauna, like grizzly bears and grey wolves, along with mountain lions, wolverines, lynx, and fishers.

Starting in the 1930s, concerned citizens and government officials have worked to protect this region, and while it remains mostly unaffected by development, it is starting to suffer the effects of climate change. As glaciers disappear from nearby Glacier National Park, the region will see warmer winters and summers, decreasing snowpack, earlier spring melts, reduced stream flows, and a longer, more severe wildfire season. The animals there will increasingly need more space to roam as their food sources and habitats change with the climate.

In a new working paper titled “Conservation Legacy on a Flagship Forest: Wildlife and Wild Lands on the Flathead National Forest, Montana,” Wildlife Conservation Society Senior Scientist Dr. John Weaver warns that the existing protections over the Flathead Forest and its surrounding areas are insufficient to guard against the negative effects of climate change. In particular, he describes the challenges for five critical species – bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, grizzly bears, wolverines, and mountain goats – and offers possible solutions to protect them.

The bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout are particularly vulnerable. These native fish are adapted for cold waters, especially when it comes to spawning and rearing their young. In addition to the climate challenges, they are forced to compete with invasive lake trout, brook trout, and rainbow trout. And as the waters warm, the invasives will have even more opportunities to spread. If the bull and cutthroat trout are to survive, they’ll need large, connected networks of cold, clean water. Ideally, the invasive species will be removed from those waters.

In addition to having to chase their food sources, grizzly bears suffer because of their low reproductive rate. Roads fragment bear populations, leading to the possibility of inbreeding, which further places the species at risk. To protect these animals, they must be kept as far from human disturbance as possible, and corridors need to be established that reduce the impact of roads.

Like grizzlies, wolverines also have a relatively low reproductive rate, making their populations vulnerable to the effects of trapping. They also rely on snow cover for their reproductive habitats. As the winter warms, they’ll be pushed to higher elevations. As with the grizzly bears, they need to be kept away from human encroachment to have a chance of surviving.

Mountain goats also reproduce slowly, and can’t compensate adequately from the main source of their mortality: hunting. They’re also particularly sensitive to anthropogenic noise from road traffic, and especially from helicopters.

Each of these terrestrial species needs to be able to cross the two major highways that divide the ecosystem: US Highway 2 and Montana Highway 83. Weaver’s assessment suggests that much of those corridors are already permeable for these species, but that any future development of alterations of these highways incorporate plans for ensuring safe passage for terrestrial wildlife.

Taking all the data together, Weaver recommends that Congress designate 404,208 acres within the Flathead National Forest as “National Wilderness,” and an additional 130,705 acres by designated as “Backcountry Conservation,” so that they can be kept free of roads. These roadless areas are critical habitats for each of these species, but have no legal protection at present. “At present, the Forest clearly is one of the last, best places for vulnerable fish and wildlife species that have been vanquished or diminished in most other areas across the western United States,” he writes. “The nearly half-million acres of roadless public lands on the Flathead National Forest offer a rare opportunity to complete the legacy of wildlife and wildland conservation on this crown jewel of the National Forest system.” – Jason G. Goldman | 27 June 2014

Source: Weaver, J.L. 2014. Conservation Legacy on a Flagship Forest: Wildlife and Wildlands on the Flathead National Forest, Montana. Wildlife Conservation Society Working Paper No. 43. Bronx, New York, USA. Download the complete PDF here.

Header image: Flathead National Forest, with Big Salmon Lake in the distance. US Forest Service/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons