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Colorado Plateau Grasslands Climate Change Adaptation Workshop

Lauren Kramer, USDA Southwest Climate Hub, Courtney Peterson Adaptive Silviculture for Climate Change

In a changing climate, natural resource managers and professionals are considering climate adaptation planning in their management plans. The National Park Service (NPS) Southeast Utah Group (SEUG), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Northern Arizona University (NAU), and the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS) held an adaptation planning and practices workshop to address climate impacts and challenges across the Colorado Plateau Grasslands. The workshop was held virtually across four days: June 17, August 23, August 25, and August 30, 2021. The meeting in June was a science webinar of regional impacts and vulnerability of the CO plateau grasslands. During the three days in August, participants considered local climate change challenges and opportunities, utilized their on-the-ground expertise to brainstorm climate-adaptive management strategies, and discussed adaptation planning in their Parks to create climate-informed management plans. The workshop was part of a series of workshops held over the past three years centering on regional climate impacts and management opportunities in response to those impacts.

The workshop goals were to:

  • Discuss information on the current and anticipated effects of climate change to grasslands in National Parks across the Colorado Plateau;
  • Describe resources and tools that can be used to integrate climate change into resource conservation and management;
  • Test a new Adaptation Menu of Strategies & Approaches for Colorado Plateau Arid Grasslands; 
  • Identify adaptation actions that can be incorporated into current and future NPS planning projects.

The workshop convened 45 natural resource professionals across the CO plateau parks including Cedar Breaks NM, Southeast Utah Group Parks, Capital Reef NP, Grand Canyon NP, Pipe Spring NM, Zion NP, and Chaco Culture NHP. The workshop followed the five steps of the Adaptation Workbook, a structured process that helps managers apply a climate change “filter” to their management planning, outlined in the Forest Adaptation Resources: Climate Change Tools and Approaches for Land Managers, 2nd Edition (Swanston and others, 2016: www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/52760). The online version of the Adaptation Workbook can be found at www.adaptationworkbook.org.

Day one of the workshop covered steps 1-3 of the Adaptation Workbook. In Step 1 participants defined their project area, management goals and objectives and timeframes. In Step 2, participants reviewed and identified regional climate change impacts from a vulnerability and exposure analysis by Bradford et al., as well as the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Participants identified impacts with the greatest potential to affect their project area. The top selected impacts included increased potential for nonnative plant invasion, variable and uncertain change in average annual precipitation, and warmer temperatures (annual and seasonal) with increases slightly greater during the cool season (figure 1).

Figure 1: Poll given to participants of Climate Impacts with Greatest Potential to Affect Project Area
Figure 1: Poll given to participants of Climate Impacts with Greatest Potential to Affect Project Area

 

Participants shared examples of how these impacts would directly affect the management goals and objectives of their project areas. Themes that arose were changes to ecosystem function, risks from increasing wildfire, drought impacts on vegetation and soils, impacts on hydrology, and impacts to habitat and wildlife.

In Step 3, participants evaluated management challenges and opportunities from climate change across the Colorado Plateau. They assessed whether it’s feasible to achieve their current management objectives and where it might be worth re-evaluating objectives based on climate change projections. Groups rated the feasibility of meeting their management goals across multiple timelines (short-term/10 years and long-term/50-100 years) by weighing climate challenges and opportunities of their project. Many assessed their current management goals as having low feasibility into the future across all timelines due to numerous climate challenges and few climate opportunities. Other challenges to achieving management goals and objectives mentioned included lack of appropriate funding, staffing and resources.

On day two, participants completed steps 4 and 5 of the Adaptation Workbook. In Step 4, participants identified grassland approaches and tactics using a draft Adaptation Menu of Strategies & Approaches for Colorado Plateau Arid Grasslands. The strategies ranged from typical management actions to more novel and creative approaches. Participants overwhelmingly selected adaptation strategies and tactics that aim to sustain fundamental ecological functions on grasslands (Strategy 1) and reduce the impacts of stressors and disturbances (Strategy 2). Their chosen management tactics focused on resisting climate change by improving degraded areas and protecting vulnerable areas. Participants expressed more comfort selecting strategies and tactics on the resistance end of the adaptation spectrum (Figure 2) due to the importance of sustaining the ecological functions of grasslands, comfort implementing actions they know work or already implementing; and hesitations with implementing assisted migration or encouraging non-native species.

Figure 2: Climate Change Adaptation Options
Figure 2: Climate Change Adaptation Options

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carolyn Livensperger from NPS - Northern Colorado Plateau Inventory and Monitoring Network (I&M) presented on monitoring currently being done in the parks and what monitoring and research resources are available to park staff. In step 5, participants identified metrics to use to evaluate the effectiveness of their adaptation actions. Managers discussed various monitoring tactics including measuring vegetation cover, using data from existing monitoring programs, citizen science data collection, installing new monitoring stations, and creatively find new ways to fund new monitoring activities.

On the third day, groups gave a brief presentation on their projects including their management goals, climate impacts, adaptation tactics, and monitoring considerations. The projects shared included:

  • Protecting high alpine meadows from expanding populations of smooth brome and other nonnative invasive species through treatments of invasives and the establishment of high elevation demonstration gardens with at-risk native species.
  • Restoring grassland diversity and soil integrity from the impacts of grazing and climate change.
  • Improving soil structure and stability, and sourcing seeds from outside of the Park to prepare grasslands for novel future conditions.
  • Accepting that juniper shrublands may transition to grasslands and encourage a native grassland ecosystem.
  • Testing novel irrigation and seed mixes that still maintain forage for ungulates and pollinator resources.
  • Preventing erosion from increases in monsoon precipitation and testing successful planting strategies in collaboration with surrounding Parks.

The three-day workshop focused on the importance of intentionally connecting the dots from management goals and objectives to the actions managers ultimately decide to implement on-the-ground. Through participation in the workshop, park managers gained knowledge, resources, and tools to help in adaptation planning that is thoughtful, structured, and robust against a changing climate for National Parks across the Colorado Plateau. The team will work to publish the adaptation menu used during the workshop to help inform future arid grassland adaptation planning efforts. Future collaborative workshops that bring together scientists and managers will be key as we continue to learn from each other to implement successful climate adaptation actions.