Anticipating Climate Change in Montana's Sagebrush-Steppe and Yellowstone River Systems

Jessi Kershner
Posted on: 1/31/2013 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

Posted by

Rachel Gregg

Project Summary

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) held a workshop to discuss the impacts and opportunities of multiple future climate scenarios on fish and wildlife species in the Yellowstone River and sagebrush-steppe habitats. Participants identified potential management actions to conserve current native species and habitat as well as maintain recreational opportunities.


Climate change is likely to result in warmer temperatures throughout western Montana; precipitation changes are generally less certain but may include general increases in precipitation in the winter and decreases in the summer, earlier spring snowmelt, less snow accumulation because more winter precipitation will fall as rain, more frequent and extreme summer droughts, and more extreme variation in both temperature and precipitation. As a result of these changing climate conditions, current sagebrush-steppe habitats in Montana are likely to experience gains in xeric shrub species, declines in perennial and tall grasses and increases in annual and short grasses, shifts in phenology for plants and animals, increased non-native invasions, and increased length and intensity of wildfires. Climate change impacts on aquatic species include significant habitat contractions for cold water fish species and expansion of habitat for warm and cool water species.

To further explore the potential climate change impacts, challenges, and opportunities for Yellowstone River and sagebrush-steppe systems in Montana, MTFWP, WWF, WCS, and NWF held a workshop entitled Anticipating Climate Change in Montana.


In December 2008, a 1.5-day workshop was held to identify impacts of climate change on habitats, animals, and fish inhabiting the sagebrush-steppe and Yellowstone River systems in Montana. About 60 people participated in the workshop including 30 staff members from MTFWP, representatives from NGOs, and invited scientists.

Specific objectives of the workshop included:

  • Increase awareness of climate change impacts;
  • Identify potential climate change impacts and opportunities related to Yellowstone River fisheries and sagebrush-steppe wildlife;
  • Improve existing fish and wildlife management plans for these two systems so that they incorporate and address the potential challenges posed by climate change;
  • Identify ecosystem attributes to monitor that will help assess direction and pace of climate-induced changes;
  • Highlight opportunities and appropriate management responses to impacts under different climate scenarios; and
  • Recommend areas for further exploration regarding climate change impacts on fish, wildlife, habitats, and ecosystems in Montana.

Separate breakout sessions were held for sagebrush-steppe and the Yellowstone River; participants were asked to identify impacts and management responses under three different climate scenarios, as well as identify monitoring and research priorities and shortcomings in existing wildlife management plans. Climate scenarios were developed prior to the workshop based on discussions with a state climatologist and climate model outputs from the IPCC 2007 assessment report. All scenarios included increased temperatures but varied in terms of seasonality of precipitation; scenarios also differed slightly between the two systems.

Outcomes and Conclusions

While three different climate scenarios were examined, in general, they all resulted in warmer and drier conditions. Thus, participants agreed that impacts to species and habitats, as well as management responses, would be similar across all three scenarios. Management responses to impacts identified for Yellowstone River species and habitats were organized around three objectives: (1) maintaining water flows; (2) maintaining native fisheries; and (3) maintaining recreation opportunities; example strategies included:

  1. Maintaining water flows
    1. Legally secure senior water rights and agreements year-round;
    2. Reduce pressures (e.g., grazing) on and restore riparian vegetation;
    3. Reduce development in floodplains to increase the natural sponge effect of floodplain areas; and
    4. Explore opportunities for temporary high-elevation water storage.
  2. Maintaining native fisheries
    1. Remove fish passage barriers;
    2. Remove non-native species to reduce competition; and
    3. Concentrate restoration activities in areas with cold water refugia.
  3. Maintaining recreational opportunities
    1. Increase public education and awareness regarding the economic value of native fish and habitats; and
    2. Explore ways to market native fishing opportunities as well as fishing opportunities for new species entering the system.

In addition to management responses, participants identified several monitoring and research priorities such as expanding the network of flow gauges, temperature gauges, and weather stations; increase monitoring of climate change impacts on food webs; identify areas where cold habitats are likely to persist; and increase understanding of thermal tolerances for different fish species. Participants also identified priority areas for implementing recommended actions.

Management responses to impacts identified for sagebrush-steppe species and habitats were organized around three objectives as well: (1) maintaining native sagebrush species assemblages; (2) maintaining native sagebrush habitat; and (3) maintaining hunting opportunities. Example strategies included:

  • Focus on monitoring and protecting sagebrush habitat in order to better anticipate and track climate-associated changes and shifts in communities, including increased coordination with federal agencies that manage the majority of sagebrush-stepped habitat;
  • Develop a map of current sagebrush distribution within Montana;
  • Collaborate with NGOs that have lobbying capabilities in order to influence conservation provisions in federal farm legislation;
  • Work with partners to ensure that ranchers and farmers retain incentives for conservation;
  • Coordinate and catalog current sagebrush habitat protection efforts; and
  • Develop guidelines for where wind energy sites can be placed with minimal impacts on wildlife.

In addition to management responses, participants identified several monitoring and research priorities such as more aggressive and robust monitoring to document trends associated with climate change; identify specific indicator species to monitor; continue research related to disease concerns and wildlife; and work with climate model researchers to improve predictability on a larger, more regional scale. Participants also noted that management plans such as the Montana Comprehensive Fish and Wildlife Conservation Strategy, elk plan, and North American Waterfowl Management Plan need to be revised to incorporate climate change considerations and adaptation strategies.


Kershner, J. (2012). Anticipating Climate Change in Montana's Sagebrush-Steppe and Yellowstone River Systems. [Case study on a project of the Wildlife Conservation Society]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE:’s-sagebrush-steppe-and-yellowstone-river-systems (Last updated September 2012)

Project Contact

Molly Cross
[email protected]

Affiliated Organizations

The Wildlife Conservation Society, founded in 1895, has the clear mission to save wildlife and wild places across the globe. Our story began in the early 1900’s when we successfully helped the American bison recover on the Western Plains.