The Gunnison Basin is well known for its diversity of habitats, wildlife and plants. It’s also a critical water source, a popular recreation area, and important ranching community. Now, rising temperatures and episodic drought are contributing to changes in these natural resources and affecting people. The Gunnison Climate Working Group – a group of land and water managers, planners, researchers and land owners – is collaborating to understand impacts, develop strategies and coordinate plans to reduce adverse effects of climate change.
Over the past few decades, the average annual temperature of the region has risen by about 1.5°F. This may not seem like much, but this change is already having an impact and temperatures are expected to climb 5.4°F by 2050. “We’re seeing large-scale pest attacks, severe fires, increased drought and earlier spring run-off,” says Betsy Neely, the Nature Conservancy’s Colorado conservation planner. “All signs tell us we need to take action for people and nature.”
The Gunnison Climate Working Group recently released a report: Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of the Gunnison Basin identifying which species and ecosystems will likely be affected by projected changes and why they are at risk. The results indicate many ecosystems and species are susceptible to loss and degradation, e.g., alpine, forest and freshwater ecosystems, plants, amphibians, and fish. Additionally, climate change is predicted to significantly affect the frequency and severity of disturbances such as fire, drought and pest attacks.
In an effort to understand the human connection to climate change, University of Alaska researcher, Corrie Knapp, assessed the how climate impacts people and their jobs in the Gunnison Basin. She interviewed 36 ranchers and recreation-based business representatives to see how climate change would impact them. Both groups are worried about a change in runoff timing as an earlier runoff may make it challenging for ranchers and for fly-fishing and rafting guides to operate. Both groups are also concerned about an increase in drought. One rancher said, “I have seen it a couple times in my life. Where there was almost no snowpack and then the ensuing summer there was no stock water, no grass, all those things and then no hay to go through the next winter.”
The vulnerability report provides a foundation for the Working Group’s next step of developing strategies to help people, ecosystems and species adapt to a changing climate. Jim Cochran, Wildlife Coordinator for Gunnison County, and co-leader of the Working Group: “I can’t be completely sure the climate models are absolutely correct, nor the impacts that predictable, but I do know that should not stop us from planning and working on things that will help increase our resiliency if they are correct, and do no harm, and even do good if they aren’t.”
The Working Group is also focused on a project designed to restore vulnerable habitat to help Gunnison Sage-grouse and other wildlife cope with a changing climate. The Working Group will use methods to raise groundwater levels and increase water flows.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District are funding this project.
You can learn more in the full report: Gunnison Basin Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
The Nature Conservancy in Colorado