Gallatin County Democrats
In the People's Interest

Guest column Opinion: Montana’s WSAs must be part of climate-smart conservation


Thirty percent of Montana is public land but, according to the Montana Wilderness Society, only 3.7% is protected as wilderness. In the United States, 12% of the land has some protected status. These places provide vital habitat for fish and wildlife, recreation and solitude, and clean water storage. Yet, wildlands everywhere are undergoing rapid change as a result of global warming and increasing human pressure, and the way we envision them now is not how they’ll look in the future. In Montana, climate is already affecting the integrity of protected places, and current changes in species composition, water availability and severe wildfires will only become more evident in the decades ahead.

My discipline of paleoecology gives some insight here. Whenever the climate has changed in the past, species have had to adapt or move in response, or face extinction. The geologic record is replete with examples of dramatic changes in species distribution and ecosystem structure during past periods of warming and cooling. Now, ecosystems are experiencing temperatures that are warmer than at any time the last 120,000 years and levels of carbon dioxide that have not been as high for 3.3 million years. It’s fair to say that no ecosystem is in sync with the current rate of climate change. No wonder scientists point to the current global extinction rates as Earth’s Sixth Extinction crisis.

Conservation efforts largely focus on real estate, with the philosophy that protecting wild places is the most cost-effective way to protect the species and processes therein. This creates a conundrum: the fixed boundaries of wilderness areas, national parks and wildlife refuges don’t accommodate change well. We need a 21st century approach to wildland conservation, one that recognizes that every part of the planet is undergoing change and protected areas may soon function much differently than their original intention.
Wilderness areas, national parks, state and city parks, green roadways and conservation easements are archipelagos in a matrix of diverse land uses and ownerships. In the future, they will serve three essential functions: (1) harbor the natural capital that we need to sustain ecosystems more broadly; (2) provide refuge for dislocated plants and animals adjusting to climate change; and (3) deliver ecological services necessary for our livelihoods and well-being.
How do we use fixed assets to facilitate ecological change and reduce the prospect of extinction? The solution proposed by most conservation biology experts is a multi-pronged approach of protection, connection and restoration.
Protection recognizes that fundamental importance of wild places to provide ecosystem services, such as native biodiversity, clean and reliable supplies of water, nutrient cycle, and pollinators for native plants and crops. No single island of protected land provides all these needs in a time of climate change, and we must hedge our bets by creating a patchwork of large and small protected regions.
In this regard, the 44 Wilderness Study Areas in Montana must be part of a climate-smart conservation scheme. They comprise over 1 million acres of prairie, river valleys, forests and entire mountain ranges on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land across the state. In the mid-1970s, WSAs were created as places for study for possible wilderness designation. At that time, only a small handful of scientists thought about climate change. Now, it is a reality recognized by a majority of Americans, and WSAs are critical conservation nodes in a 21st century network of protected lands.
Restoration refers to the necessity to bring back elements and processes that have been lost in the course of Euro-American settlement. Do particular lands and waterways still maintain critical biotic and abiotic elements that existed 100 years ago, including keystone species and natural processes? Have years of forest management, logging, and development altered forest structure and composition to the degree that fires can only occur under extreme conditions? And, are strategies in place to minimize the spread of nonnative plants and animals, including diseases?

To accomplish these goals, we need information. The 2017 Montana Climate Assessment (MCA) was produced by the Montana Institute on Ecosystems as a collaboration of universities, agencies, tribal colleges, nonprofit organizations and individuals. Foremost among MCA findings were that temperatures in Montana have increased 2-3 degrees F since 1950 and could be as high as 10 degrees F by the end of the century. Warmer temperatures are reducing our high elevation water supplies as rain replaces snow and leading to earlier snowmelt, faster runoff, summer water shortages and more wildfires. The report considered these impacts on Montana’s water resources, agricultural sector and forests.

The 2017 MCA has been recognized nationally as an example of how other state assessments should be done. However, it was never intended to be a one-off report but rather an analysis that would be regularly updated to address emerging topics relevant to the state. To this end, we recently released a special report with healthcare professionals describing climate change concerns for human health in Montana.

How will climate change affect our wildlands? We are overdue for an assessment of the future of Montana’s protected lands, fish and wildlife in the face of climate change. This foundational information is needed to guide state-level conservation planning as well as educate resource stewards and the public about ongoing environmental change. A MCA report on this topic would also support the federal “30 by 30” goal to protect 30% of land and ocean areas by 2030 to fight climate change and stem biodiversity loss. Without baseline information for our state, we are shooting in the dark when it comes to resource conservation, species management and the disposition of protected lands.

Montana’s Constitution, ratified in 1972, guarantees the right to “a clean and healthful environment for present and future generations.” That aspiration requires a clear-eyed understanding of the environmental and social-economic challenges posed by climate change. The stakeholder-informed, science-driven MCA process is a proven strategy for finding common ground in the search for climate-related solutions. It is worthy of sustained investment.
Cathy Whitlock is a Regents Professor Emerita at Montana State University and lead author of the Montana Climate Assessment (
Missoulian, 4/4/21

Leave a Reply