Last week, I attended a meeting in Enterprise with range specialists, ranchers and Joseph Band Nez Perce people from the Colville reservation. The topic? Tracking and managing the precariousness that climate change is bringing to our local rangelands.
Summers in Oregon are trending hotter and drier. When temperatures are high, the window of abundant high-protein green forage is shorter. Poor summer forage means thinner animals and fewer and weaker calves. This is true for wildlife too, retired ODFW biologist Mike Hansen told me, in a different meeting. Dry grass is “basically soda crackers” for grazers, he said. Mike’s research on the Sled Springs elk herd has shown that poor calf recruitment is tied to high summer temperatures more than to any other factor. More heat means drier plants means fewer babies. You don’t get much more straightforward than that.
These are only two of the meetings I’ve attended recently about climate change in our region. And a decline in rangeland forage quality is only one of the ways that global warming is already impacting Eastern Oregon. Every local land manager and scientist I’ve spoken with in the last six months (and I’ve spoken with dozens) is concerned about climate change.
Temperatures in Oregon have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century and will continue to rise. The Forest Service, having reviewed regional projections, expects temperatures in the Blue Mountains to rise an additional 4.5 to 6.5 degrees over the next three decades. For every degree of temperature increase, the snow line climbs about 300 feet.
Less snow means longer fire seasons, spring floods, creeks gone dry sooner in the summer, and severe impacts on water availability for agriculture. People who pay close attention to the land are already seeing these effects. Our streams and reservoirs are already sometimes warm enough to kill salmon, which is one reason local tribes are deeply engaged in climate adaptation planning. Drought- and heat-tolerant insects and weeds are changing the composition of our forests and grasslands.
Exactly how much hotter it will get depends on whether or not we muster the will to curtail, globally, our fossil fuel addiction. How much worse it will get depends, at least in part, on how we manage our resources locally.
In Northeast Oregon, adaptation requires protecting our headwaters and riparian areas and using water more thoughtfully. Domestic water efficiency can be improved with rainwater capture and consumption choices. Changing which crops we grow and where, and changing stocking levels and herd characteristics, can help farmers and ranchers manage climate risk.
On our public lands, restoration efforts (coupled with better monitoring in a time of rapid change) can help us to proactively support the hydrologic function of floodplains and soils. We also have an amazing opportunity, here in Northeast Oregon, to help solve the climate crisis. The easiest, most affordable climate solutions are “technologies” that nature has already developed. Trees and soils store carbon, so when we protect forests and grasslands, or lengthen the interval between disturbances like logging and tilling, we’re protecting giant structures that pull heat-trapping pollutants out of the air for us, for free. Nature is our best buffer against local climate instability too: Forests and wetlands provide clean water and temper climate extremes in both winter and summer. A connected network of wildlands is also our best bet for ensuring that our non-human neighbors can move in response to climate-related changes in their habitats.
A record seven in 10 Americans (including, increasingly, conservatives) now say they’re worried about climate change. It’s time for politicians to step up before we’re out of time. Only nations and the international community can make changes at the scale (global) and in the time frame (one decade) that we need. But we’re not helpless at the local level. Already, in Northeast Oregon, our land managers, land lovers and landscapes are figuring out, in a time of rapid change, how to adapt.