Climate change in the form of reduced snowfall in mountains is causing powerful and cascading shifts in mountainous plant and bird communities through the increased ability of elk to stay at high elevations over winter and consume plants, according to a groundbreaking study in Nature Climate Change.
The U.S. Geological Survey and University of Montana study not only showed that the abundance of deciduous trees and their associated songbirds in mountainous Arizona have declined over the last 22 years as snowpack has declined, but it also experimentally demonstrated that declining snowfall indirectly affects plants and birds by enabling more winter browsing by elk. Increased winter browsing by elk results in trickle-down ecological effects such as lowering the quality of habitat for songbirds.
The authors, USGS Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit scientist Thomas Martin and University of Montana scientist John Maron, mimicked the effects of more snow on limiting the ability of elk to browse on plants by excluding the animals from large, fenced areas. They compared bird and plant communities in these exclusion areas with nearby similar areas where elk had access, and found that, over the six years of the study, multi-decadal declines in plant and songbird populations were reversed in the areas where elk were prohibited from browsing…
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