What We’re Learning and Why it Matters: Long-Term Monitoring on the Northern Colorado Plateau

Five photos. One is of a satellite above Earth. The other four show scientists working on land and in water in red-rock landscapes.

After more than ten years of monitoring, we've learned a lot about park ecosystems, how they're changing, and what they may look like in the future.

The National Park Service preserves America’s most special and treasured places. Knowing which key natural resources are found in the parks, and whether they are stable or changing, can help park managers make sound, science-based decisions about the future.

The Northern Colorado Plateau Network (NCPN) is one of 32 inventory and monitoring networks building that knowledge. In 16 National Park Service units, our scientists and partners collect long-term data on key natural resources—like plant communities, soils, and the quality and quantity of water that we call "vital signs," because their condition can indicate the overall health of park resources. We analyze the results, track the changes, and provide information to decisionmakers.

There's still plenty we don't know, but there's a lot we do know. Here are some common questions and answers.

What have you learned? What kinds of changes are you seeing?

The first several years of any monitoring program are devoted to figuring out what's "normal" for a given system. We collect data to establish a baseline, then determine the range in which measurements might be expected to fall under typical conditions. With more than ten years of data for some resources, we’ve learned numerous key things about the systems we study.

Water Quality

  • The water quality in most NCPN parks is good. The most common issue of management concern seen in our data is waste contamination. Livestock, wildlife, and visitors can all be sources of waste contamination, including E. coli and emerging contaminants. Visitors can help keep park waters clean by using restrooms when available and eliminating waste more than 200 feet from water in the backcountry. Always filter water before drinking.
  • NCPN data have helped clarify the role of livestock in waste contamination at Zion and Capitol Reef national parks. The parks are working with the State of Utah to develop plans to reduce livestock waste in the affected streams and rivers. When we have good data on problems, park managers can work on making positive changes.
River flows through multi-colored canyon
Green River, Dinosaur National Monument. NPS/Amy Washuta

Big Rivers

  • Variability is key to river health and diversity. There is no one “perfect” flow that is good for rivers. They need dry years with low flows, wet years with high flows, and everything in between. Stability is generally bad for rivers, because a steady flow allows more vegetation to become established than a natural ebb-and-flow would. Once this happens, it is a lot harder for the river to do its job of reworking the river bank. On the other hand, when vegetation is occasionally scoured away, a diversity of physical and biological habitats are created.
  • Natural flows, and variable flows that follow natural flow patterns (e.g., on regulated rivers), result in lower levels of invasive plants. Stable flows from dams generally favor invasive plants over native plants.

Invasive Exotic Plants

  • Exotic-plant control works. Several parks have eliminated invasive exotic species from known locations, or made areas largely weed-free. NCPN monitoring results have reflected successful control efforts in several parks, including Colorado and Fossil Butte national monuments, and Zion and Capitol Reef national parks. These control efforts are most effective when the infestations are small. However, this work is never “done;” it’s an ongoing challenge. The NCPN monitors and regularly reports on invasive exotic plants at eight parks.

Landbirds

  • NCPN landbird populations are experiencing more declines than increases. Over 13 years of data collection, 167 individual species have been detected in 11 NCPN parks. In 2018, a total of 135 population-density trends were estimated across three habitats: low-elevation riparian, pinyon-juniper, and sage shrubland. Twenty-two of those trends were significant (p-value <0.05), including 7 positive trends and 15 negative trends (see below).
Increasing and Declining Trends in NCPN Landbirds, 2018
Seven increasing trends: 4 in PJ and 3 in SA 15 decreasing trends: 7 in LR, 5 in PJ, and 3 in SA
Seven increasing trends were estimated for species in pinyon-juniper (PJ) and sage shrubland (SA) habitats.
Fifteen declining trends were estimated for species in low-elevation riparian (LR), pinyon-juniper (PJ), and sage shrubland (SA) habitats.



Wadeable Streams

  • Wadeable streams in NCPN parks are prone to flash floods. Changes in these systems tend to be sudden and unpredictable, and longer-term trends can be hard to detect.
  • Vegetation along these streams tends to be well-adapted to disturbances.

Vegetation

  • Generally speaking, there hasn't been a lot of change in vegetation condition across NCPN parks over the past 10 years or so. However, looking at vegetation data in the context of climate data shows us how plant communities have responded to past patterns of temperature and precipitation. This helps us predict how current communities may respond to expected patterns of increased temperatures and decreased water availability. The record we’re putting together now can help park managers know what to expect in the future.
Grassland with large pink flowers in foreground. A storm brews over red rock cliffs in background.
Grassland, Capitol Reef National Park.

What are the expected effects of drought and rising temperatures?

Long-term monitoring does more than tell us what’s happened in the past. It shows us how a system works under a range of different conditions. Once we have a long-term data record that reveals baseline data and past and current trends, we can determine how sensitive different vital signs are to climate—and where, when, and how much they are likely to respond as the climate changes. What follows is a list of changes we are already seeing reflected in our data, and expected effects based on our own record and the best available climate models.

Climate

  • Spring is coming earlier in parks across the US. One possible result is that changes in phenology (the timing of seasonal activities, such as leaf unfolding, flowering, and wildlife migration) may make some resources unavailable when they’re needed by their consumers. Parks may also experience longer fire seasons.
  • Habitat for key species is changing in and around Zion National Park. Species distribution models, in combination with historical temperature data and future temperature projections, show that suitable habitat may become more abundant for Shivwits milk-vetch. Habitat may also increase for the desert tortoise, but decline for American pika. Information like this can help park managers assess the potential effects of management actions.
Lagomorph sits in a rock with a mouthful of grass.
American pika habitat is projected to shrink in Zion National Park. USFWS/Chris Kennedy
  • Overall average temperatures are rising, and they are rising faster in the Southwestern US than in some other parts of the country. At the same time, the Southwest is getting drier. Current projections indicate it will continue to get hotter. Based on that, and how vegetation has responded to previous droughts, we expect longer—and hotter—droughts that will have bigger impact on vegetation than in the past.
  • It’s currently projected that by 2100, the average temperature for Moab, Utah, will be 10°F higher than it is today (66°F instead of the current 56°F). That adds up to a tremendous amount of extra heat every year. Places with an average temperature of 66°F currently include areas of the southeastern US, along with areas of southern Nevada and south-central Arizona (see figure below)—places much warmer than today's Moab.
Map of U.S. A band of red crosses much of the Southeast at the latitude of coastal Alabama and Mississippi.
Areas of the US where the average temperature is currently 66 degrees Fahrenheit.

Source: https://climatetoolbox.org/

  • Precipitation patterns are harder to predict, but we do know that as it gets hotter, evaporation increases, meaning much more precipitation is needed to maintain the same amount of water in the system. If precipitation doesn’t come, droughts get stronger.
  • Because precipitation is unlikely to increase proportionally with temperature, and because different plant communities persist under different conditions, park visitors in future decades will likely see a very different vegetative landscape. Changes to plant communities affect the animals that depend on those plants, so there may be changes across plant and animal communities.
  • Even the desert can experience drought. Though they develop many adaptations to help them survive in arid environments, desert plants need certain amounts of water, and they need it at certain times.

Vegetation

  • In 2017–2018, there were 16 consecutive months of below-average precipitation at the Natural Bridges National Monument climate station. This drought—the worst seen in 30 years—was more stressful for junipers in southeast Utah (e.g., Hovenweep and Natural Bridges national monuments) than previous local droughts have been. We and others are trying to figure out why. We will be investigating how many trees perished in the drought, and if vegetation recovers as it did from past drought (e.g., 1999–2003).
  • The most recent drought has highlighted the way different plant types and species have different strategies to survive drought, and taught us a lot about what to expect in future droughts. For example, junipers kill off their own branches and may ultimately survive by paring down their canopies to a branch or two. Grasses die back during drought. Their new growth depends not only on precipitation from the current year, but also from previous years, so grasses may not be able to take advantage of a wet spring in one year if precipitation was below average the previous year.
Blue sky and mountains in background. A line of brown-orange juniper bushes stands amid other, greener shrubs and trees.
Patch of dying junipers with the Abajo Mountains in the background, Cedar Mesa, Utah. NPS/Dana Witwicki

Water

  • A lot of NCPN surface water is vulnerable to hot, dry conditions. Measured springflow at Arches National Park is closely related to air temperature, because higher air temperatures mean more water is used by plants and lost to evaporation. That leaves less surface water for animals. The same process affects many smaller streams that rely on groundwater for much of the year. Extreme drought in 2018 caused one of our long-term water-quality monitoring sites to go dry and caused very low flows in others.
  • We've recorded increasing water temperatures (related to increasing air temperatures) in places as diverse as cave pools, large reservoirs, and mountain streams.This can stress aquatic life—both directly and indirectly through effects on things like dissolved oxygen. It also increases the likelihood of harmful algal blooms, like the one that occurred in summer 2018 at Blue Mesa Reservoir (Curecanti National Recreation Area). Harmful algal blooms kill fish. They can also kill pets and cause severe illness in people. They are a significant public health risk and are likely to increase with rising temperatures.
Lakeshore with bright-green algae growing in water
Algal bloom at Blue Mesa Reservoir, Curecanti National Recreation Area, 2018. NPS photo.
  • Wildfire often causes catastrophic changes in water quality and flood magnitude. A 2006 wildfire in Zion National Park's North Creek drainage caused debris flows that were toxic to fish, overtopped culverts, and damaged homes downstream of the park. Algal blooms continued for years after the fire, which made the stream uninhabitable for fish. Wildfire frequency and intensity are expected to increase.
  • Even if annual rainfall stayed about the same, a hotter future is effectively a drier future for NCPN parks because of increased water demand and losses to evaporation.

Big Rivers

  • 2018 was dry. The first-ever “call” on the Yampa River occurred in August 2018. (The Colorado Division of Water Resources places a call on a stream when water rights owners do not receive the amount of water they have a legal right to. When a call is in place, some water users are forced to reduce or stop their use in order to send enough water downstream to fulfill the older water right.) Average flows on the Yampa River in September 2018 were 56.9 cubic feet per second (cfs), the second-lowest ever (the previous being 46 cfs in 2002). At Curecanti National Recreation Area, Blue Mesa Reservoir dropped to an elevation of 7,437.18 feet in fall 2018. This is the lowest it has been since 1984, when it reached its record low of 7,427.71 feet.

Wadeable Streams

  • As the climate becomes hotter and drier, we expect base streamflows to decrease in our wadeable streams.

Invasive Exotic Plants

  • Once established, invasive exotic plant populations generally increase when left alone. They capitalize on habitat disturbances (such as wildfires, flooding, extreme droughts, construction activities, and other land-use practices), and then become established. Future climate patterns are expected to result in increasing numbers of environmental disturbances. This will increase opportunities for invasives.
Patch of grass grows on island in river, towering grey cliffs overhead.
Invasive reed canarygrass grows along the Gunnison River, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

How is the Northern Colorado Plateau Network helping park managers plan for future conditions?

In addition to improving our understanding of what’s happening and what’s likely to happen in the future, NCPN ecologists work with many partners to apply that knowledge to management scenarios. Here are some ways NCPN data can make a difference in park management.

  • NCPN water and vegetation monitoring are helping to determine the sensitivity of park vital signs to a changing climate. Climate projections tell us how much change to expect. Sensitivity tells us how the things we care about are likely to respond. Combined, this tells us which, when, and where vital resources are vulnerable. Knowing this, managers can be proactive and mitigate what could happen if we did nothing but watch.
  • Our work is helping managers know which types of plants may be more resilient to projected climate changes. This will help them decide which plant communities to prioritize for restoration, so parks don’t waste time and money planting species that are unlikely to survive. We expect some species to be affected by drying conditions sooner than others depending on their inherent sensitivity to drought and their distribution on the landscape. Some live on dry sites, others on less dry sites. Understanding these distributions will help us determine where to expect change sooner. This also helps us understand our options as the climate gets drier—where and what to plant or promote, and where and what to let go.
Short green plants grow behind short screens in red soil
Knowing which plants will likely be best-suited to which places can help maximize the success of restoration projects. NPS/Liz Ballenger
  • The more prepared we are for transitions to new vegetation assemblages, the better. If we can proactively promote desirable species, we close gaps that would otherwise be filled by opportunistic invasive (i.e., undesirable) species. Thus, we’re starting to think about ecological function of different species. Which species are suited to the new climate on different soil types in the parks? What benefits do they offer to other species (either animal or human), and how can we maintain biodiversity? Studying how plants respond to climate across a wide area on many different soil types may provide the clues to determining which species might survive in new places in the future.
  • Using case studies at Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, ecologists modeled how different fuel-reduction treatments affect post-fire hydrology. The model can help park managers estimate the effect of such efforts on wildfire severity and post-wildfire runoff or erosion. By predicting the likely results of different treatments, the model can help managers identify the most effective, cost-efficient options available to them.
  • All this knowledge is made possible by the sometimes grueling task of routine long-term monitoring, which provides the essential information needed to manage parks under changing conditions.

For more information, contact Dusty Perkins (Program Manager) or Alice Wondrak Biel (Writer-Editor), of the Northern Colorado Plateau Network.

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    Last updated: November 25, 2019