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Mountaintop Species
Denver Post, October 10, 2010

Protecting mountaintop species
By Noah Greenwald

Few of us ever reach the mountaintops. Were you to make the trip, though, you'd find a world like no other. Trees grow slow and grudgingly if at all. Bitter-cold temperatures freeze out all but those with special adaptations. The tiniest fluctuations in food, water and shelter can tip the balance on an already paper-thin margin of survival.

Somehow, though, a dogged community of life has persisted up there for thousands of years: high-peaks trees, plants, birds and mammals.

But those species' thin margins of survival are becoming thinner still. As the planet warms and higher temperatures creep up the mountainsides, creatures that have found unique ways to thrive on the roof of the world now face the dismal prospect of extinction. Some simply can't stand the heat and have nowhere else to go. Others see their familiar homes transformed into landscapes they're not adapted to. Still more face diseases carried by insects that never used to reach such heights.

They are among the earliest species vulnerable to global warming, and a disturbing harbinger of what's to come should this crisis be left unchecked.

That's why, last week, the Center for Biological Diversity filed scientific petitions to give endangered species protections to four mountaintop animals at urgent risk from climate change.

Among those is the white-tailed ptarmigan of Colorado's Rocky Mountains, one of the few animals that lives on alpine mountaintops throughout its entire life. Every part of the ptarmigan is adapted to help it cope with a frigid climate, from its feathered, snowshoe-like talons to its seasonally changing plumage to its remarkable metabolic ability to gain body mass during harsh winters.

But as the climate warms, these same adaptations could spell the bird's doom. The ptarmigan's range is severely limited by its sole dependence on alpine habitat, which is shrinking as hotter temperatures sneak up the mountainsides, threatening to push the tree line — and the ptarmigan — to ever-higher elevations until there's no more room to rise.

Our petition also includes New England's Bicknell's thrush, which is threatened by the loss of its high-elevation conifer forests; Southern California's San Bernadino flying squirrel, which faces threats to its mountain home and truffle food; and a Hawaiian songbird called the 'i'iwi, which faces the possibility of extinction as warmer temperatures allow disease-carrying mosquitoes to make new inroads into its high-elevation habitat.

We're already witnessing changes in climate in many mountainous areas. Studies in the western United States, for example, have documented reduced snowpack and earlier spring runoffs. Those changes will mean less and warmer water in the summer months for many areas, with impacts on both people and wildlife.

Though the plight of these mountain-dependent species is troubling on its own, it speaks to a larger concern about the fate of our planet and its species, including people. Scientists say that, left unchecked, global warming could condemn a third of the world's plant and animal species to extinction by 2050.

Other species, to be sure, are also already struggling against climate change: the tiny American pika in the West faces similar problems as its mountaintop-dwelling neighbors; the polar bear is losing sea ice it needs to breed and hunt; corals are dying as the ocean turns more acid.

Earlier this summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the first half of 2010 was the warmest on record — and that's on top of a string of records set over the past decade. Conditions won't improve unless we act.

Congress needs to do its job in passing climate legislation that reduces atmospheric carbon levels to 350 parts per million, the target scientists say is needed to avoid the worst effects of this global crisis. The Obama administration should also use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse pollution.

In addition, those species most immediately vulnerable to climate change need our attention and protection. We're counting on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do the right thing.

Ignoring this problem, or failing to act out of political fear, is to place those species on an inexorable path to extinction and put the rest of us next in line — even those who may never visit the top of a mountain.

Noah Greenwald is endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Oregon.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton