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Climate change and wildlife genetics

Date: December 04, 2014

Elk bugleing
Elk bugeling

One of the biggest challenges that wildlife and plant populations face is the speed at which climate change is predicted to occur. For some species the rapid rate of change will outpace their ability to migrate to more suitable habitats. What is needed is an understanding of the evolutionary and genetic responses to climate change and accurate identification of which species will be unable to persist given various climatic predictions. Our research will help managers adjust to and reduce the negative impacts of climate change on ecological systems.


To reduce the impacts of climate change on plant and animal species, we need to obtain a detailed understanding on how individual species respond to radical habitat changes. In general we can predict that for many species to persist they will need to: 1) migrate to cooler areas, 2) increase heat/drought tolerance within their existing range, 3) rapidly adapt to new pathogens, and 4) change the timing and nature of seasonal life history traits  (i.e., spawning, emerging, and development rates).

It is important for the Forest Service to: 1) survey existing ‘genetic variation’ which provides the raw material for adaptation; 2) develop models to predict how we can facilitate adaptation through enhancing connectivity among different populations, and in extreme cases facilitate movement of economically and socially important species; 3) understand the ecological community level changes that occur as ecosystems restructure to meet new environmental conditions; and 4) develop monitoring programs that alert us to the impacts of climate change to allow time to take efficient action.

Expected outcomes

Currently, our wildlife, tree, and plant geneticists are involved in all four lines of research outlined above. We are using spatial genetics to develop critical connectivity maps for a suite of sensitive wildlife species and developing genetic markers to identify adaptive traits for disease resistance and heat tolerance in wildlife and fish populations. We are also developing non-invasive genetic methods to improve monitoring effectiveness and reduce costs. These same data can subsequently be used to evaluate the distribution of adaptive genes. Lastly, we are actively collaborating with ecologists and climate scientists to project the consequences of these findings and inform management choices.

Principal Investigators: 
Forest Service Partners: 
US Forest Service Region 1 (Northern Region)
US Forest Service Region 4 (Intermountain Region)
US Forest Service Washington Office
External Partners: 
Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks
Montana State University
The Nature Conservancy
University of Idaho
University of Montana
Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife