Climate change: Montana could lose half its bird species

In the Bitterroot Valley, many bird enthusiasts visit the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge to see trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes and bobolinks, all of which will be lost to climate change. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Montana could lose more than half of its bird species as they are forced to move north or die as a result of climate change, according to a new report.

The National Audubon Society’s newly released “Survival By Degrees: 389 Species on the Brink” predicts the vulnerability of 604 North American bird species as they deal with the habitat loss and weather changes likely to occur under three climate warming scenarios.

“We’re in the midst of a bird emergency,” said National Audubon Society CEO David Yarnold during a Facebook broadcast. “Nearly two-thirds of America’s species are threatened by extinction. And this isn’t just about birds – it’s about the ecosystems we share with them, because birds have always been the indicators of the health of nature and important ecosystems. So this is as much about the future that we face and that our children face as it is about the future that birds face.”

Scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change developed the warming scenarios based upon greenhouse gas increases that would cause average annual global temperature increases of 1.5, 2 and 3 degrees Celsius. Climate scientists have urged countries worldwide to reduce greenhouse gases enough to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees to avoid global catastrophes associated with excessive drought, wildfires, powerful storms and associated flooding and massive sea level rise.

In the worst-case scenario – an increase in the annual average global temperature of almost 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit – summer average temperatures in Montana are expected to rise 12 degrees by the end of the century and winters will be 4 degrees warmer than they were in 2010.

Drought will increase as will the occurrence of megafires, and more of the state’s ecosystems will change to grassland. So large swaths of western and boreal forest will be lost, as will the glaciers, alpine tundra and peaks of Glacier National Park that support 275 species of birds.

In the worst-case scenario, 138 of 238 bird species would be vulnerable to localize extinction in Montana. Of those, 74 would be highly vulnerable, including waterbirds such as the piping plover and common goldeneye, and many beloved songbirds that depend on forests, such as mountain chickadees, mountain bluebirds, dark-eyed juncos, and evening grosbeaks.

Many beloved songbirds that depend on forests, such as evening grosbeaks, are listed as highly vulnerable to climate change. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Great gray owls, nicknamed “Ghosts of the Forest,” would truly be only ghosts as forests die off. In the Bitterroot Valley, many bird enthusiasts visit the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge to see trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes and bobolinks, all of which will be lost.

This bleak prediction follows on the heels of a scientific study published in September in the journal Science that showed North America has already lost 3 billion birds since the 1970s. The scientists reached this conclusion after studying records of 529 species that account for 90% of the entire bird population in North America. In particular, grassland birds, including meadowlarks, Montana’s state bird, have declined by more than half primarily due to habitat loss.

The Audubon report predicts only 54 species are likely to endure in the Treasure State, including wild turkeys, hawks, swallows and tiny populations of blue jays in the lower mountain ranges of central Montana.

Interestingly, several birders on social media have reported seeing blue jays this fall in western Montana, where few, if any, have been before. Under the warming scenarios, blue jays may gain a tiny amount of habitat in central Montana, but some Montana birders are wondering if they may be coming west also, as seasonal changes are already occurring.

While the predictions are dire, the purpose of the report is to warn people about things that could happen if people and governments don’t change their habits.  If countries can reduce their use of fossil fuels in time, climate change can be reduced and more ecosystems can survive.

Amy Cilimburg, Climate Smart Missoula executive director, worked with the Audubon Society a few years ago but was still impressed with the amount of information used in the report to predict the future of so many bird species.

But with so many reports predicting everything that the world could potentially lose – from birds to cropland to land mass due to ocean level rise – she wants to emphasize that people can still change the future if they take action.

For example, the Audubon study predicts that Missoula County could lose 56 bird species in the worst case scenario of a 3 degrees C increase, but only six species will be lost if the world can hold the temperature increase down to 1.5 C.

To keep the temperature down, greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by almost half in another decade and must be zeroed out by 2050. Unfortunately, U.S. carbon emissions are continuing to increase.

Montana still gets more than half its energy from fossil fuels, even though the state has the fifth best wind resource in the country.

“It’s very different if we take action now versus we keep going with business as usual. That’s so obvious to state but when you can see how it will affect different species, it’s dramatic,” Cilimburg said.

So Cilimburg is going to talk to the Bitterroot Audubon Society on Monday night about how they can help make enough of a change to keep more bird species around. People need to make individual changes, such as driving less and using less energy, but they also need to help make larger changes, such as influencing government policy to reduce greenhouse gases.

“The (Science Journal study) is dramatic because we’ve lost so much of our common birds. These are system failures. This is not just one bird that’s having trouble,” Cilimburg said. “So looking at both of those large robust studies – one is what we’ve lost and one is where are we headed – together, they paint a stark conclusion, but hopefully we can use those to step it up. These bird reports implore us to step out of our comfort zone. What happens to wildlife is also happening to people.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.