To save mountain biodiversity, everyone needs to play nice

Look at any satellite image of Earth’s surface and the first things you notice – other than all the water, of course – are the mountains. There’s a good reason for that: mountainous terrain covers 27% of the Earth’s surface.

Despite the fact that many mountains are relatively inaccessible, mountain terrain is subject to the many of the same anthropogenic pressures as all the other habitats on our planet: logging and its subsequent erosion, acid deposition via rain and snow fall, and climate change. Those stressors are added to a type of terrain already extremely volatile. Mountains are particularly impacted by earthquakes, volcanic activity, and heavy precipitation. Because higher altitudes are so cold, it takes longer for plants and animals to grow and for populations to recover from decreases, whether of natural or human origin.

Despite the fact that many mountains are thought of as untouched wilderness, they’re not free from the cumulative effects of human activity. A quarter of the lakes and ponds of the Adirondack Mountains – 700 lakes and ponds in total – have become more acidic, for example. Or take wolverines. They rely on cold snow-pack for food storage and as shelter. But as the planet warms and snow becomes less predictable, wolverine populations may become physically isolated. Eventually, they could suffer from genetic inbreeding, and the entire species could decline.

What can be done to help mountain ecosystems? That’s the question taken up by researchers Charles C. Chester, Jodi A. Hilty, and Lawrence S. Hamilton in the latest issue of the Journal of Mountain Ecology. One important goal is to maintain connectivity among separated landscapes like mountaintops, forest fragments, or isolated wetlands, such as through wildlife corridors.

The problem is that the notion that giving wildlife the ability to move around is helpful in our warming world remains largely untested. Still, there aren’t really any viable alternative strategies. One such alternative might be species translocations, but that’s quite costly. Genetically manipulating species to better withstand climate change, even if it were possible and effective, would likely be seen by many people as unethical, if the response to plant-related genetic modification is any indication. And controlling greenhouse gas emissions is probably politically unfeasible. Even if imperfect, “corridors appear to be our best comparatively reasonable hope for protecting mountain biodiversity in the long-term,” they say.

Mountain ecology sits at a unique interdisciplinary intersection, and work to protect the biodiversity that thrives there will require communication and cooperation among three scientific communities that have historically remained rather isolated, each on its own metaphorical mountaintop: the mountain research community, the corridor ecology community, and the climate change community.

While this might seem obvious and intuitive, Chester, Hilty, and Hamilton say that it’s actually a somewhat radical idea. That’s because many have traditionally thought of climate change as independent, operating separately from habitat destruction and habitat fragmentation, the two primary villains in the battle to preserve biodiversity. But climate change more likely exacerbates those processes in an additive or even a multiplicative way.

The researchers propose four questions to guide future interdisciplinary research on mountain biodiversity conservation, and they stress that they must be answered in concert rather than in isolation:

  • What do we need to know about mountain biodiversity and how does it interact with human communities in the mountains?
  • Given what we know in response to the first question, can we accept the premise that corridors provide sufficient connectivity between ‘natural’ communities, species, and their populations in mountain regions?
  • Even if we craft accurate and useful responses to questions 1 and 2, to what degree will anthropogenic climate change require modification of those responses?
  • How can we best build resilience into mountain ecosystems?

Think of it as a unified mountain research agenda. “If the community of people who care about mountain biodiversity can accomplish these ‘ground level’ tasks,” they say, “we may then be in a position to protect the full diverse range of mountain life.” – Jason G. Goldman | 05 September 2014

Source: Chester C.C., Hilty J.A. & Hamilton L.S. (2014). Mountain gloom and mountain glory revisited: A survey of conservation, connectivity, and climate change in mountain regions, Journal of Mountain Ecology, 9 1-34.

Header image: Wolverines depend on the cold snow-pack provided by mountain habitat to den and store food. Copyright Mark Packila.