Colorado scientists study ptarmigans as bellwethers of climate change |

Colorado scientists study ptarmigans as bellwethers of climate change

Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
ABOVE: After capturing a bird Greg Wann collects a blood sample from the bird by cutting a toe nail. He will also collect feathers, measure wings and the tarsas in the feet, take the weight and sex of each bird and place a total of five bands on the bird's legs as part of his research on the birds. Ecologist and CSU graduate student Greg Wann is doing his graduate work on the study of Ptarmigans in Rocky Mountain National Park as well as Mount Evans. These tundra birds may not be able to survive as global temperatures in the above-timberline high country increases. As part of a USGS federal and CSU project, Wann spends part of the month of May and August into September tracking down these birds on the high tundra, tagging them, and gathering research such as blood samples, feathers, measurements of the body as well as gender. So far this year, Wann has tagged and recorded information on about 30 of the birds. Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK – Amid concerns that climate change will reshape Colorado’s high country, Colorado State University ecologist Greg Wann is on a tough mission: tracking ptarmigans, the elusive mountain birds known for their camouflage.

The conditions he faces trudging after them here at 12,100 feet – sharp rocks, icy wind, a merciless sun – are daunting even during summer.

“It can be difficult getting around,” Wann says. “It’s harder to breathe.”

Cold, snow-packed terrain above tree line, inhospitable to most creatures, is essential for ptarmigans’ survival.

Colorado has been a stronghold for the birds until now. But scientists say warming temperatures and decreasing snowpack may mean trouble.

Wann plays the crucial role in a federal government-backed effort to verify impacts and monitor ptarmigans as a possible climate-change sentinel.

“We think ptarmigans are going to have a limited ability to cope with climate change because they are limited to alpine habitats,” said project supervisor Cameron Aldridge, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist and CSU professor. “If something is happening to them, then we should be concerned.”

Wildlife-diversity advocates last week launched a campaign to designate the ptarmigan officially as a threatened species.

A petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity contends that “warmer winter temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns and the movement of treeline upslope will cause white-tailed ptarmigan habitat to become unsuitable.”

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees, the designation would obligate action to mitigate the threat – including possible limits on carbon-dioxide pollution.

“Americans have committed to preventing the extinction of species like the ptarmigan,” said Noah Greenwald, director of the endangered-species program for the center, which has won protection for more than 360 species.

“This is shrewd, because the ptarmigan is not just a beautiful bird but a bellwether for degradation of the environment we all depend on,” Greenwald said. “Spring snowpacks are already getting smaller and melting earlier, which makes the summer dry season longer and more severe in many areas.

“If this trend continues, it will affect our water supplies as well as have a tremendous impact on our rivers. The ptarmigan’s fate thus is connected to our own.”


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