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Twenty-five Southern Rockies alpine plant species found nowhere else

Date: April 15, 2015


Climate Change and Alpine Plants

Alpine meadow from the top of Brown's Peak in the Snowy Range of Southeast Wyoming with Medicine Bow Peak in the background.  There are 127 known alpine plant species on these two peaks. Photo: Jim Fowler, 6/14/14
Alpine meadow from the top of Brown's Peak in the Snowy Range of Southeast Wyoming with Medicine Bow Peak in the background. There are 127 known alpine plant species on these two peaks. Photo: Jim Fowler, 6/14/14
Current predictions of climate change effects show that plant species in elevations above timberline may be vulnerable to higher temperatures and changing snowfall patterns since they have limited area for upslope migration. Most alpine areas in the Southern Rockies are on Forest Service land, and these plants provide pristine mountain scenic values during their brief summer. 

Biodiversity managers, land managers, and plant biogeographers need to know what vascular plants occur in treeline ecotone/alpine habitats. Plant lists provide baseline data for measuring changes in vegetation over time and identifying vulnerable species that might require adaptation measures.

Research Objectives and Approach

A recent collaboration between an RMRS research ecologist and two research botanists from the Rocky Mountain Herbarium resulted in a definitive list of 609 vascular plant species and subspecies found in the alpine zone of the Southern Rocky Mountains. The Southern Rockies alpine plant species list shows the geographic distribution of each species and, in a major finding, documents 25 Southern Rockies alpine endemics--species that are found nowhere else in the world. 

This regional-scale assessment transcends the traditional political boundaries of state and national forest inventories by biogeographically analyzing vascular plant distribution in the alpine vegetation zone. Researchers documented the occurrence of vascular plant species using results of 4,000-13,000 km2 scale floristic inventories compiled by the staff and 19 graduate students from the Rocky Mountain Herbarium over the past 27 years to synthesize species occurrence and distribution information for the entire Southern Rocky Mountain region.

Management Implications

The Southern Rockies alpine plant species list has 18 Forest Service sensitive plant species along with two species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. These 20 species have very restricted geographic distributions that may make them especially vulnerable to future environmental change. 

The Southern Rockies alpine plant species list is a great reference for National Forest Systems biologists, planners, and land managers in the Southwest, Rocky Mountain, Intermountain, and Pacific Southwest Regions of the Forest Service. The alpine plant species list can help with implementation of the Forest Service 2012 Planning Rule that requires each national forest to determine its species of concern as a replacement for the Regional Office sensitive species lists. The alpine plant list should also enable research ecologists to design high-quality baseline studies to measure changes in vegetation in response to climate change and to focus population size studies on species most vulnerable to extinction.

Featured Publications

Folwer, J.F., B.E. Nelson, and R.L. Hartman. 2014. Vascular plant flora of the alpine zone in the southern Rocky Mountains, U.S.A. J. Bot. Res. Inst. Texas 8(2): 611-636.

Additional Publications

Brummer, L. 2014. A floristic study of the Gunnison National Forest and Montrose Basin. M.S. thesis in prep., Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Chumley, T. 1998. A floristic survey of the east slope, central Colorado. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Elliott, B.S. 2000. A vascular flora of south-central Colorado. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Flaig, J.H. 2007. A vascular plant inventory of the eastern San Juan Mountains and vicinity in southern Colorado. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Foley, E.K. 2006. A floristic inventory of the Arapaho National Forest and Bureau of Land Management Lands in Grand County, Colorado. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Hartman, R.L. 1992. The Rocky Mountain Herbarium, associated floristic inventory, and the Flora of the Rocky Mountains project. J. Idaho Acad. Sci. 28: 22-43.

Holt, E.A. 2002. Vascular flora of the Sawatch, west Mosquito, and west Gore Ranges and Castle Peak Area, Colorado. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Kastning, N. 1990. A floristic survey of the Park and Sierra Madre Ranges, Colorado and Wyoming. Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Kirkpatrick, M. 2014. A floristic inventory of the White River National Forest south of the Colorado River. M.S. thesis in prep., Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Larson, J.E. 2008. A floristic inventory of vascular plants of the Carson National Forest and vicinity, north-central New Mexico. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Legler, B.S. 2010. A floristic inventory of Vermejo Park Ranch, New Mexico and Colorado. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Lukas, L.D., B.E. Nelson, and R.L. Hartman. 2012. A floristic inventory of vascular plants of the Medicine Bow National Forest and vicinity, southeastern Wyoming, U.S.A. J. Bot. Res. Inst. Texas 6: 759-787.

Lyon, M.J. 1996. A floristic survey of the San Miguel and Lower Dolores River Drainage, Colorado and Utah. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Moore, L.M. 1998. Floristics of the Upper Dolores River Drainage, southwestern Colorado. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Nelson, B.E. 1974. Vascular plants of the Medicine Bow Mountain, Wyoming. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Nelson, B.E. 1984.  Vascular plants of the Medicine Bow Range, revised edition. Jelm Mountain Press. Laramie, Wyoming.

Nunn, S.C. 2003. A vascular flora of the Canyon Lakes Ranger District of Roosevelt National Forest, Larimer County and adjacent areas, Colorado. M.S. thesis, Department Dept. of Biol. Sciences., Univ. of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Rief, B.P. 2006. A vascular plant inventory of the Santa Fe National Forest (including the Valles Caldera National Preserve) and vicinity, north-central New Mexico. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Taylor, K. 2000. A floristic inventory of the northern Gunnison Basin, Colorado. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.

Vanderhorst, J.P. 1993. Flora of the Flat Tops, White River Plateau, and vicinity in northwestern Colorado. M.S. thesis, Dept. Botany, Univ. Wyoming, Laramie.



Principal Investigators: 
External Partners: 
B. Ernie Nelson - Rocky Mountain Herbarium, University of Wyoming
Ronald L. Hartman - Rocky Mountain Herbarium, University of Wyoming