Glacial melt impacts stream & lake habitat: Stoneflies existence threatened

National news outlets have sounded the alarm that Glacier National Park’s namesake glaciers are predicted to largely disappear by 2030.  Tourists flocked to Glacier National Park (GNP) in record-setting rates in 2016, many wanting to glimpse the ill-fated glaciers before they are gone. But the impacts of disappearing glaciers extend beyond tourists’ concern of witnessing Glacier Park’s namesake features.

The survival of two species are directly threatened because they live in the pure, icy stream-waters that run off of glaciers at high elevations. As climate change causes the glaciers to melt, the meltwater lednian stonefly and western glacier stonefly are at increased risk of losing this very specific and rare habitat.

Because of these threats, on October 3 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal to list these two stonefly species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“These stoneflies are a bit like a canary in a coal mine,” said F. Richard “Ric” Hauer, professor at the University of Montana and the director of UM’s Center for Integrated Research on the Environment. “They’re an integral part of the ecosystem that supports trout habitat and they’re pointing to a much larger global problem. Climate change is occurring at a rate that is unprecedented.”

Western Glacier Stonefly (Zapada glacier)
Western Glacier Stonefly (Zapada glacier) Joe Giersch / USGS

Glacier loss in GNP is directly impacted by climate change, according to the proposed rule, authored by the Montana Ecological Services Field Office. The report goes on to say, “When established in 1910, GNP contained approximately 150 glaciers … but presently only 25 glaciers remain.”

The meltwater lednian stonefly and western glacier stonefly populations have already been forced to move upstream, pursuing their preferred habitat as glaciers shrink. However, once glaciers and snowfields are fully melted, the stoneflies will be left without habitat.

It’s not just about the stonefly, it’s what the stonefly indicates about the health of the park in general,” said Taylor Jones, Endangered Species Advocate with WildEarth Guardians, an organization that first petitioned for the stonefly to be recognized as a threatened species. “It’s an indicator of much bigger problems — if the stonefly disappears, there’s something seriously wrong in the park.”

As climate change continues to escalate, Jones says additional species will be impacted. “In terms of fishing, cold water species in particular are going to have the same problem as the stonefly. If the temperature of the stream rises you’re going to see a whole different fleet of species having issues. I think fishers should be concerned, because rising water temperatures will affect that activity in really unpredictable ways.”

It’s unclear what action the federal government will take as a direct result of the stonefly being listed as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act.

“If we look at the example of the polar bear, Fish and Wildlife Services did exempt a lot of causes of climate change from oversight under the ESA, but they can’t keep doing that forever,” said Jones. “At some point we’re going to reach a tipping point with the amount of species on the list because of climate change. We hope they take a look at how their leasing public land for coal mining, oil and gas development contributes to the issue.”

Hauer believes the stoneflies’ threatened classification is part of a larger narrative which provides strength to what he calls “an argument that we need to do something.”

“This problem affects our agriculture, our fisheries, our natural resources and our trees,” said Hauer. “The cascading effects are numeral and mounting.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asking for help by sending any scientific or commercial information on these two stoneflies during the 60-day public comment period which runs until December 1, 2016.  

You can see the proposed listing rule on https://www.regulations.gov by searching for Docket Number FWS–R6–ES–2016–0086. Submit comments by clicking on the “Comment Now!” button.

Or, you can mail your comment to:  

Public Comments Processing

Attn: Docket No. FWS–R6–ES–2016–0086

U.S. Fish & Wildlife, MS: BPHC

5275 Leesburg Pike

Falls Church, VA 22041-3803

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