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Study Develops Forecasts On Which Columbia Basin Streams Will Serve As ‘Climate Refugia’
Posted on Friday, March 13, 2015 (PST)

Interior Columbia River basin researchers bring at least some good news to an ever darkening picture of potential impacts to fish and wildlife from global warming.


The new research concludes that some refuge streams with high probabilities of native trout population occupancy will exist for such species under both moderate and extreme climate change scenarios. And knowing where those refuges are will guide efforts to protect them.


The “Climate Shield” study just published in the scientific journal Global Change Biology uses the high-resolution “Norwest” stream temperature scenarios developed from data contributed by more than 80 agencies with crowd-sourced biological datasets to develop accurate forecasts about specific streams that are most likely to act as climate refugia for native cutthroat trout and ESA-listed bull trout across the Pacific Northwest this century, said Dan Isaak, who along with Mike Young headed the research.


“Different from previous studies of this nature is the level of precision with which we can now make those forecasts due to the amount of data that’s been aggregated for this effort across all 450,000 kilometers of stream in the region.


The findings, stemming from eight years of research, provides detailed analysis of the land administration associated with the refuges shows that 90 percent occur on public lands (70 percent on national forests) but only about 15 percent are within watersheds formally protected as wilderness areas or national parks.


“Hearteningly, it appears that although both species are likely to decline as warming progresses, neither is likely to go extinct regionally even under the most extreme climate change scenarios,” according to Isaak.


By forecasting which streams are most likely to continue supporting the species, the research may enable key watersheds to be better protected, help rally support among multiple stakeholders, and provide a foundation for climate-smart planning of conservation networks that could sustain broader species distributions this century,” Isaak says.


“Forecasts of refuge locations could enable protection of key watersheds and provide a foundation for climate smart planning of conservation networks,” the research paper says. “Using cold water as a ‘climate shield’ is generalizable to other species and geographic areas because it has a strong physiological basis, relies on nationally available geospatial data, and mines existing biological datasets.


“Importantly, the approach creates a framework to integrate data contributed by many individuals and resource agencies, and a process that strengthens the collaborative and social networks needed to preserve many cold-water fish populations through the 21st century,” the study paper says.


A key dimension to the research has been development of a website to host all the information as user-friendly digital maps and GIS databases so that the science can be easily accessed and applied by managers & all conservation interests for more efficient planning and investment, the researchers say.


See more at:


The research article, “The Cold-water Climate Shield: Delineating Refugia for Preserving Salmonid Fishes Through the 21st Century,” was published online Feb. 27 by Global Change Biology.


Lead author for the article is Isaak of the Rocky Mountain Research Station, U.S. Forest Service, Boise, Idaho. Contributing authors include Young of the Rocky Mountain Research Station, U.S. Forest Service, Missoula, Mont., and David E. Nagel, Dona L. Horan and Matthew C. Groceit of the Boise RMRS.


The journal article can be found at the journal web site:


Or find the link to the publication at:


While a major goal of this project is to provide climate vulnerability and native trout refuge information to land managers and policymakers, another goal is to provide open access to the information through a common digital database and project website so that it can be accessed and used by anyone concerned about native trout in the region (


The techniques and technology used to build Climate Shield are broadly applicable to other species and geographic areas and have shifted the paradigm of how natural resources research can be conducted, the researchers say.


“The high-resolution digital information in the study is the perfect complement to local knowledge, because it provides strategic maps that allow managers to put each stream in a broader context and make ‘apples to apples’ comparisons across landscapes in the northwest,” said Isaak.


“This work is the capstone of nearly eight years of research on climate change and stream ecosystems by the U.S. Forest Service RMRS and many partner agencies, according to Isaak. Two critical partners in this latest effort include the Northern Rockies Adaptation Partnership, which provided the forum for the fish vulnerability assessment; and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Northern and North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperatives that funded the NorWeST project to develop high-resolution climate scenarios from a comprehensive stream temperature database that was culled from more than 80 resource organizations (


The NorWeST webpage hosts stream temperature data and geospatial map outputs from a regional temperature model for the Northwest U.S. The temperature database was compiled from hundreds of biologists and hydrologists working for dozens of resource agencies and contains more than 45,000,000 hourly temperature recordings at more than 15,000 unique stream sites. These temperature data are being used with spatial statistical stream network models to develop an accurate and consistent set of climate scenarios for all streams.


“It’s been a lot of fun to learn and work through the process, but it’s also humbling because so many people care so much about these species and they’ve been willing to share much of their hard-earned data with us,” said Isaak.


He said the stream temperature data alone contributed to the project would cost $10 million to replicate.


“The big fish databases people shared would add millions more to that price-tag. But the researchers were able to pull it all together with a small database team and a few grants and now have the gratifying experience of serving ‘value added’ information back to the people making on-the-ground decisions to protect these species,” Isaak said.


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The Rocky Mountain Research Station is one of seven regional units that make up the U.S. Forest Service Research and Development organization. The station maintains 12 field laboratories throughout a 12-state territory encompassing the Great Basin, Southwest, Rocky Mountains, and parts of the Great Plains, and administers and conducts research on 14 experimental forests, ranges, and watersheds, while maintaining long-term databases for these areas.


RMRS research is broken into seven science program areas that serve the Forest Service as well as other federal and state agencies, international organizations, private groups and individuals. To find out more about the RMRS go to or Twitter at


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