Ecosystems across the Northern Great Plains provide recreational opportunities and other valuable goods and services that are at risk in a changing climate. Rising temperatures have already resulted in shorter snow seasons, lower summer streamflows, and higher stream temperatures, which have negatively affected high-elevation ecosystems and riparian areas, with important consequences for local economies that depend on winter or river-based recreational activities. Climate-induced land-use changes in agriculture can have cascading effects on closely entwined natural ecosystems, such as wetlands and the diverse species and recreational amenities they support. Federal, tribal, state, and private organizations are undertaking preparedness and adaptation activities, such as scenario planning, transboundary collaboration, and development of market-based tools.
Ecosystems across the Northern Great Plains provide recreational opportunities and other valuable goods and services that are ingrained in the region’s cultures and at risk in a changing climate. Recreationists enjoyed roughly 13.1 million days of fishing in the region in 2011, along with 10.8 million days of hunting and 8.7 million days of wildlife-watching. The region contains two dozen national parks, monuments, and historic sites. This subset of outdoor recreationists alone—among a wider population who pursue additional outdoor recreation activities in the region—spent over $4.9 billion on these activities during 2011 ($5.2 billion in 2015 dollars).65,66,67,68,69
Climate change affects recreation through three pathways: 1) direct impacts to the ecosystems and wildlife or fish populations of interest (for example, increasing water temperature impacting coldwater fish survival); 2) changes in environmental conditions that directly affect recreationists (for example, increased water temperatures resulting in brief river closures for angling to minimize additional stress on sensitive fish species); and 3) effects of adaptation policies on habitat quality or recreational enjoyment (for example, energy policies that result in higher fuel costs, making distant trips more expensive).70 These three pathways have not been fully quantified for most recreational systems, within or beyond the Northern Great Plains, and the third pathway is only speculative—it has not yet been documented in the scientific literature. Scientific understanding is most complete for the first pathway—the extent and ways in which climate change affects ecosystems that support outdoor recreation.70
Climate-related impacts are already being felt in the region’s terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, as well as the local economies that depend upon them. Climate-driven changes in snowpack, spring snowmelt, and runoff have resulted in more rapid melting of winter snowpack and earlier peak runoff due to rapid springtime warming.71,72,73 These effects have resulted in lower streamflows, especially in late summer.74 Lower flows, combined with warmer air temperatures, have caused stream temperatures to rise.75,76,77 These conditions are negatively affecting aquatic biodiversity (e.g., Hotaling et al. 201778) and ecosystem functions of riparian areas (areas along the banks of rivers and streams; e.g., Tonkin et al. 201879), with important consequences for local economies that depend upon river-based recreation. For example, higher stream temperatures are accelerating the hybridization and genetic dilution of native trout species with nonnative trout species.80 Similarly, shifts in habitat suitability in favor of warmwater fish species are projected to reduce the value of coldwater fishing in the Northern Great Plains by $25 million per year under RCP4.5 by the end of the century and by $66 million per year under RCP8.5 (in 2015 dollars).81 Higher stream temperatures are already increasing the vulnerability of coldwater fish species to diseases, such as proliferative kidney disease (PKD).82,83,84 PKD killed thousands of native mountain whitefish in Montana during 2016, which triggered a month-long closure of 180 miles of the Yellowstone River to all water-based recreation.85 Economic impacts to local communities are still being quantified, but initial estimates range from $360,000 to $524,000 (in 2014 dollars; range is from $363,600 to $529,240 in 2015 dollars).86
In the mountainous areas of the region, climate change is impacting snow-dependent ecosystems and economies. In Wyoming and Montana, for example, higher-than-normal winter and fall temperatures and low summer precipitation are enabling severe mountain pine beetle outbreaks in whitebark pine.87 Whitebark pine is a keystone species of high-elevation ecosystems, providing a critical seed source for more than 20 wildlife species, creating microenvironments that allow other tree species to establish, and influencing snowpack dynamics.88,89 Whitebark pine is also an important cultural resource for some tribes in the region.90
In the future, warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation are expected to decrease the extent and duration of snow cover across much of the northern hemisphere. In the mountains of western Wyoming and western Montana, the fraction of total water in precipitation that falls as snow (from October 1 to March 31) is expected to decline by 25% to 40% by 2100 under a lower scenario (RCP4.5).10 The last day of the snow season is also expected to arrive earlier in the spring. Under a lower scenario (RCP4.5), it is expected to occur roughly 20 days sooner by 2050 and 30 days sooner by 2100. Under a higher scenario (RCP8.5), it is expected to occur 80 days sooner by 2100.10 This would negatively affect the region’s winter recreation industry, including snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing.11
Under a lower scenario (RCP4.5), the season length for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in northwestern Wyoming and western Montana is expected to decline by 20% to 60% by 2090.11 Under the higher scenario (RCP8.5), the projected decline is more severe: 60% to 100%.11 Similar losses in season length are projected for the region’s downhill skiing industry—a $275 million industry.11 The number of visitors to downhill ski areas is, therefore, expected to decline. Under RCP4.5, visitors are projected to decline by 13% by 2050 and 22% by 2090 (holding population constant); under RCP8.5, projected declines are 19% by 2050 and 49% by 2090.11 Similar declines are projected for the region’s $4.6 million cross-country ski industry and $2.3 million snowmobiling industry (in 2015 dollars).11 Such reductions in visitor numbers would cause ripple effects across the local economies of snow-dependent communities.
At lower-elevation areas of the Northern Great Plains, natural ecosystems are often embedded within agricultural landscapes. Climate-induced land-use changes in agriculture can, therefore, have cascading effects on closely entwined natural ecosystems, such as wetlands,12 and the diverse species and recreational opportunities they support. Technological and economic forces within agriculture are also driving land-use changes, which accelerate the degradation of wetlands. For example, in South Dakota and North Dakota, changing climatic and market conditions have enabled agriculture shifts from pasture to small grains, or small grains to corn and soybeans.12 Nearly 40% of these land-use changes have occurred within 300 feet of neighboring wetlands, reducing the quantity of wetlands and the quality of their ecological functions (see Case Study “Wetlands and the Birds of the Prairie Pothole Region”).46 For example, conversion of pasture to cropland or of winter-seeded crops to spring-seeded crops reduces waterfowl nest survival by increasing habitat fragmentation, which makes nests more vulnerable to predation.91,92 Tillage in newly converted fields also increases the risk of soil being washed into nearby wetlands, reducing their biological productivity and floodwater storage capacity.93 These changes have cascading effects not only on wetland-dependent waterfowl but also on shorebirds, fish, amphibians, aquatic insects, and plants. Waterfowl hunting and watching are important cultural and economic activities in rural communities of the Northern Great Plains.94 In South Dakota alone, hunters spent $84.7 million in 2015–2016 on migratory bird hunting (in 2016 dollars; $83.9 in 2015 dollars).95
Higher temperatures, reduced snow cover, and more variable precipitation would make it increasingly challenging to manage the region’s valuable wetlands, rivers, and snow-dependent ecosystems to sustain today’s levels of natural amenities and associated recreational opportunities. Federal, tribal, state, and private organizations are undertaking preparedness and adaptation activities, including scenario planning, to discuss current climate-driven challenges and envision future challenges and responses. The North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center, for example, has facilitated scenario planning exercises for southwestern South Dakota in the vicinity of Badlands National Park and for central North Dakota in the vicinity of Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.96 The Crown Adaptation Partnership—a transboundary team of scientists and resource managers from the United States, Canada, and Tribes/First Nations—is collaborating on climate change adaptation strategies across multiple jurisdictions to enhance resilience of the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem in northern Montana, southwestern Alberta, and southeastern British Columbia.97 Finally, private organizations have been partnering with researchers to develop “payments-for-ecosystem services,” an emerging tool to address land-use change on private agricultural acreage.98 This market-based tool, when designed appropriately, can encourage private landowners to provide wetlands, wildlife habitat, pollinator habitat, and other valued ecosystem services rather than converting land to uses that produce fewer ecosystem services.99,100