Specter of Climate Change Looms Large for Rare Insect in Glacier National Park

Photo courtesy Joe Giersch, USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center.

[Article published at NewWest.net, April 19, 2011].

Montana’s Glacier National Park is expected to look quite different in 20 years time. Scientists predict that that the park’s remaining 25 glaciers will disappear by 2030, their icy faces having melted as a result of global warming.

Along with the depletion of the sanctum’s permanent snowfields, the destruction of the glaciers is predicted to take its toll on a lesser-known insect, the meltwater lednian stonefly, which researchers have observed in just 11 of the park’s frigid alpine streams.

The Waterton–Glacier International Peace Park, which incorporates Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park, is the only place where scientists have documented the rare bug. A handful of Glacier National Park’s frosty waters, fed by crisp glacial and snow run-off in the summer time, are well suited to the stonefly’s requirements, since it inhabits streams with average summer water temperatures of less than 50 degrees.

In a recent study, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey predict the stonefly will lose more than 80 percent of its habitat due to melting glaciers and reduced snowpack in the park, which could ultimately result in its extinction. And while the tribulations of this obscure invertebrate might not seem of dire importance, the stonefly’s plight speaks of challenges facing other vulnerable alpine insects.

A community of unsung insects lives in Glacier National Park’s waters. Some species of caddis fly are only found there and in the Canadian Rockies, while another rare insect – a type of amphipod, which is a little crustacean – has only been found at six locations in the park and nowhere else in the world, said Joe Giersch, an aquatic entomologist at the U.S. Geological Survey and co-author of the study.

Since the late ‘90s, Giersch has been trekking the park, scouting isolated alpine streams and springs for these insects. He is particularly proud of one caddis fly specimen, which he found only once and had not been seen since the ‘50s.

“The real take-home message is that we really aren’t just dealing with one single species here. We’re dealing with a whole ecosystem of interest: a very rare ecosystem that is dependent on very cold and permanent water,” said Giersch over the phone from his office at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in Montana.

Once streams fed by snowmelt and glacial melt have dried up or become intermittent, the “last refuge” for the insects would be streams fed by underground springs, he explained.

As the alpine streams the stonefly calls home continue to dwindle, it’s likely stonefly populations will become more and more isolated, since the insect is not very mobile, he said.

“They’re not very efficient fliers, so we don’t think they can travel very far and re-colonize different streams,” he said.

Stonefly Number 260 to Hit Endangered Species Waiting List

On April 4, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that because of the meltwater lednian stonefly’s impending predicament – a loss of its natural habitat due to the glaciers melting – the insect warrants protection under theEndangered Species Act. But, since other priority plants and animals need to be addressed, the stonefly will join 259 other species on a list of candidates for federal protection. The candidate species receive no statutory protection while on the waiting list. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service does provide grantsto states and territories which have entered into a cooperative agreement with the agency to initiate voluntary conservation programs for candidate species on non-federal lands.

Species on the candidate list receive a listing priority number, ranging from 1, highest priority, to 12, lowest priority. The number is given because “there are not enough Service personnel, time, or money to propose all the candidate species for listing,” according to a Fish and Wildlife Service document.

The Fish and Wildlife Service awarded the stonefly a priority number of 4. This does not guarantee a date when the stonefly will graduate to official endangered or threatened species status, since the Service has to process higher priority candidates before dealing with the lowly stonefly.

Some plants and animals have been on the waiting list for over 20 years, explained Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit environmental organization working to protect native species and their habitats.

Twenty-four species have gone extinct or missing – defined by the Center’s researchers as “not having been recorded in 10 years despite survey efforts,” while idling on the candidate list, according to a Center for Biological Diversityreport. One such species is the shortnose cisco, a salmon not seen since 1985 in the three Great Lakes – Michigan, Ontario, and Huron – it used to inhabit, chiefly due to overfishing.

Curry criticized the Obama administration for not doing enough to protect imperiled species.

“Obama’s endangered species record is terrible. He’s dragging his feet,” she said. “It’s extremely disappointing to those of us who were hoping for hope and change, because he hasn’t improved the Fish and Wildlife Service very much over the second Bush administration.”

“He’s done better than George W. Bush, but that’s no record to be proud of,” she said. “George W. Bush didn’t put a single species on the Endangered Species list that wasn’t court ordered.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has monitored government efforts to award endangered species protection dating back to 1974. The Obama government has given Endangered Species Act protection to 58 species so far. By contrast, President Clinton, somewhat of a champion of preservation, awarded federal protection to about 65 species per year, for a total of 522 protected species. George W. Bush listed 62 species during his two terms in office.

Stonefly Not Left Stranded

The status of candidate species is reviewed each year. While the stonefly waits in line, biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service will be working with the USGS and academic scientists to get a better understanding of the stonefly’s dispersion, genetics, lifecycle and habitat needs, said Beth Dickerson, a Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, based at the Montana Field Office, who is responsible for updating the stonefly’s record each year.

It’s possible the stonefly might be found in other places in the Rocky Mountain area, she said.

“I would imagine it is going to show up, at least a little bit farther north and a little bit farther south,” said Giersch.

The scientists will be running experiments to identify the lethal limits of the temperatures the stonefly can survive. They will also be trying to figure out what the insects eat. Along with genetic research, this will provide a better idea of the stonefly’s ability to survive in the face of climate warming, Giersch explained.

Stonefly Not Alone in Facing Climate Change

The Fish and Wildlife Service has identified climate change as the primary threat to the stonefly’s continued existence. But other candidate species in the Rocky Mountain West may also be affected by climate warming. The 2010Candidate Notice of Review, a Fish and Wildlife Service report providing updated information about all candidate species, mentions climate change as a potential threat to 19 candidate species. Nine of these species, including the Rio Grande Cutthroat trout – native to Colorado and New Mexico and found in the drainages of the Rio Grande, Pecos and Canadian rivers – reside in the Rocky Mountain West.

“Climate change is the number one future threat to biodiversity,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, over the phone from Los Angeles, where she was attending a conference on the Clean Air Act at the University of California, Los Angeles. “In the past it was habitat loss and introduced species, but climate change is going to overtake those – it’s the largest threat we’ve ever faced.”

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