Climate change is threatening some of the best-protected places on the planet
Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 06:20PM
Beth Pratt

The Sierra Nevada and Yosemite are named in a new report as being at risk from climate change (Photo by Beth Pratt)America’s national parks are the best protected places on the planet, yet according to a new report released by the Endangered Species Coalition, even these environmental sanctuaries are at risk from climate change.

Yosemite and Yellowstone are just two of the national parks included in the ten ecosystems identified as hotspots for threatened and endangered species in "It's Getting Hot Out There: Top 10 Places to Save for Endangered Species in a Warming World." “Climate change is no longer a distant threat on the horizon,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition. “It has arrived and is threatening ecosystems that we all depend upon, and our endangered species are particularly vulnerable. If we are serious about saving endangered species from global warming, then these are the places to start.”

The report considered the areas that most need our immediate attention for protection by posing the question “What do we save?” Recognizing the monumental and near impossible task of prioritizing preservation efforts in light of the widespread threats of climate change, the authors focused on habitats that possess a high concentration of endangered species to determine the ten areas most at risk.

California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range is home to three national parks: Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Global warming, along with pollution, invasive species, combined with population growth and land development in adjacent areas, have significantly stressed the parks. Warming temperatures—and the resulting decreased snowpack and seasonal drought—have already challenged the native Yellow-legged frogs, Yosemite toad, alpine-dwelling pika, and bighorn sheep.

In Yellowstone National Park—housed within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, an area stretching over 28,000 square miles—rising temperatures have contributed to the widespread death of the whitebark pine tree, which provides a vital food source for the grizzly bear and other animals. According to the report, 82 percent of the whitebark pine forests in the Yellowstone ecosystem showed either high or medium mortality. The outlook for the tree, along with the grizzly bear and other creatures that depend upon it, appears grim: “Based on this study and current changes, experts predict that whitebark pine will be functionally extinct in the ecosystem—failing to provide food, shelter and hydrological functions—in five to seven years.”

The report also underscores the need for immediate action on behalf of these threatened areas. “Endangered species don't have the luxury of waiting for political leaders to act to slow the pace of climate change,” said Huta. “We certainly need to reduce global warming pollution, but we also need to act now to protect some of the most important ecosystems for imperiled wildlife for whom climate change may mean extinction.”

List of top 10 ecosystems to save for endangered species featured in the report:

1. The Arctic Sea Ice, home to the polar bear, Pacific walrus and at least 6 species of seal.

2. Shallow Water Coral Reefs, home to the critically endangered elkhorn and staghorn coral.

3. The Hawaiian Islands, home to more than a dozen imperiled birds and 319 threatened and endangered plants.

4. Southwest Deserts, home to numerous imperiled plants, fish, and mammals.

5. The San Francisco Bay-Delta, home to the imperiled Pacific salmon, Swainson’s hawk, tiger salamander and Delta smelt.

6. California Sierra Mountains, home to 30 native species of amphibian, including the Yellow-legged frog.

7. The Snake River Basin, home to four imperiled runs of salmon and steelhead.

8. Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, home to the imperiled Whitebark pine, an important food source for animals, including the threatened Grizzly bear.

9. The Gulf Coast’s flatlands and wetlands, home to the Piping and Snowy plovers, Mississippi sandhill crane, and several species of sea turtles.

10. The Greater Everglades, home to 67 threatened and endangered species, including the manatee and the red cockcaded woodpecker.

Seven additional ecosystems were nominated but not selected for the Top 10. They nonetheless contain important habitat for imperiled species, and include: Glacier National Park, Jemez Mountains, Sagebrush steppe, U.S. West Coast, The Maine Woods, The Grasslands of the Great Plains, and the Southern Rocky Mountains.

The full report, which includes information on each ecosystem, as well as recommended conservation measures, is available online at or

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