A researcher kneels in a grassy and shrubby prairie, holding two plastic canisters for sample selection. In the background is a vast range of snowy mountains.
Volunteer Wildflower Watch Researcher collecting samples for the Wildflower Watch project. © Corinna Riginos/TNC

Stories in Wyoming

Wildflower Watch

TNC scientists are enlisting the community’s help in studying the impacts of climate change on local plants.

Wildflower Watch Spring 2021 Newsletter

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Timing is Everything

The timing of when plants flower and fruit is critical to the survival of many animals, from bees and hummingbirds to grizzly bears. With the onset of climate change, we’ve seen that timing begin to shift and that could have a ripple effect throughout the food chain. The potential consequences are serious. For example:

  • Will there be nectar for hummingbirds when and where they need it?
  • Will berry bushes produce fruit at the right time for bears to load up on critical calories before they begin hibernation?

To get a handle on this seasonal timing of ecological events—which is known as phenology—The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming has begun a two-pronged project to study these effects the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. One part is research by our own staff scientists. The other is a citizen science component. And, we are depending on work of a well-known predecessor to come up with results.

This information can help land managers understand how they might help plants and animals adapt to the changing climate.

In the Footsteps of a Visionary

In the 70s and 80s, scientist Frank Craighead carefully documented when plants in parts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem leafed out, bloomed and bore fruit. A few years ago, TNC Scientist Corinna Riginos discovered these handwritten notes in the basement of Craighead’s old cabin.  Today, our scientists are using these notes to retrace his footsteps, repeating these observations of the same species, in the very same places that Craighead walked.  

Eventually, our team will compare their data on nearly 50 species of plants with Craighead’s to see what is different. And that information can help land managers understand how it might help plants and animals adapt to the changing climate.

The results of our first two years clearly demonstrate that many species of native wildflowers in the Greater Yellowstone region are sensitive to temperature changes and are blooming, on average, two to three weeks earlier—some even earlier—than observed by Dr. Craighead. For example, yellowbells (Fritillaria pudica)—an important spring food source for grizzly bears emerging from hibernation—are appearing in mid-April, while Craighead observed these flowers appearing in the same location in early May.

Closeup of a bell-shaped yellow flower at the end of a long curving stem.
Yellowbell Flower Yellowbell flower © Gail Moser / TNC

You Can Help

You can be part of the solution by joining our Wildflower Watch citizen science program each spring and summer. After a short training, you’ll help us collect data along a couple of popular hiking trails near Jackson. This is a great way to personally help our local plants and wildlife adapt to the impacts of climate change

If you’d like to get involved, contact TNC Scientist Trevor Bloom. And join the Wildflower Watch group on Facebook.