Digging into the Past for Climate Solutions

A glimpse into the past provides data needed to preserve desert ecosystems in the face of a changing climate

“Conservationists, land managers, and ranchers can all use this information to make more informed decisions that will protect critical small mammal species and maintain the overall health of these desert landscapes.”

- Allison Stegner, Paleoecologist

When you’re driving down the winding canyon roads of Utah’s southeastern desert, you may not know that here, under layers of soil accumulated over thousands of years, lie clues that can help provide solutions to climate change.

The striations of sediment along the towering red rock plateaus remind you that this ancient landscape has seen many species come and go, and humans are still relatively new to this ecosystem, which is increasingly experiencing changes from Earth’s changing climate. It begs the question, “How do species respond to climate change and what do we do about it now?”

Predicting the Effects of Climate Change

New research at the Canyonlands Research Center (CRC) lead by Allison Stegner, paleoecologist and granddaughter of renowned conservation writer Wallace Stegner, aims to answer these key questions. Her work focuses on defining the range of normal diversity for small mammals, such as kangaroo rats and deer mice, on the Colorado Plateau and identifying the cause of population fluctuations.

Although rodents and small mammals are often seen as vectors of disease and competition for resources, Stegner’s research demonstrates how vital these populations are for maintaining native species and storing seeds. Ironically, the rodents that ranchers find a nuisance are actually crucial to maintaining the forage they need to feed livestock. “We don’t appreciate all of the ecosystem functions that these species are performing for us,” says Stegner. “People really do benefit from them.”

Predicting how these species will adapt to climate change is critical to both land protection efforts and sustainable land management. It requires collecting large amounts of data on population trends over thousands of years to distinguish natural variations from meaningful directional change. To collect this data, Allison has excavated four alcoves on BLM lands near Dugout Ranch dating back 8,000 years and compared them against modern data collected through trapping.

What she found isn’t surprising. “In the last 500 years, the ecosystem has changed in a pretty remarkable way,” Stegner remarks. “The larger implication is that we’ve had major periods of change in the past, but something that we’re doing now is affecting communities more than any of the changes that we’ve seen before, and that’s concerning."

Using the Fossil Record to Make Informed Decisions

More data is needed before we have all of the answers, but Stegner’s research presents a compelling discovery. Her data shows that while major droughts and other episodes of climate change in the distant past drove human populations out of the area, other mammals remained largely unaffected. It’s not until the modern era that we see a dramatic difference in the abundance of species.

Although the data collected by Stegner shows that climate change is happening now at an unprecedented rate, she hopes the information will help preserve this critical ecosystem for wildlife and the ranchers that call the desert home. “If we know how these small mammal species will respond to climate change, then we can predict which populations will be most impacted and which ones can handle more pressure,” says Stegner. “Conservationists, land managers, and ranchers can all use this information to make more informed decisions that will protect critical small mammal species and maintain the overall health of these desert landscapes.”

To learn more about this and other climate research at the CRC, visit www.canyonlandsresearchcenter.org/


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