Global Warming in the American West

How is global warming affecting the America’s western states? Check out the National Wildlife Federation’s new report, Fueling the Fire: Global Warming, Fossil Fuels and the Fish and Wildlife of the American West.

The report not only details the threats fish and game species could face and are facing at this moment, it sets forth some great solutions.

Excerpt from the Excutive Summary

For millions of people, hunting, fishing and other outdoor traditions are an important part of life in the American West. But America’s addiction to fossil fuels is coming at an enormous price, one that threatens not only people but the fish, wildlife and ecosystems that are so fundamental to the region’s–and nation’s–economy, culture and values.

Above all, burning coal, oil and gas is the driving force behind global warming, which will dramatically alter the western landscape if left unchecked. Indeed, the growing body of evidence that global warming is already having an impact on natural systems is a strong warning: without meaningful action to reduce now emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases responsible for the problem, the western U.S. faces greater risks ahead. For example:

  • Less Snowpack: Global warming will cause a dramatic reduction in snowpack in some areas, placing considerable strain on the region’s water supply. Mountains in the Pacific Northwest are projected to lose as much as 88 percent of average snowpack by 2090; the Central Rocky Mountains could lose up to 75 percent; and parts of the Southern Rockies and the Sierra Nevada range could lose 98-100 percent.
  • Persistent Droughts: Drought conditions are expected to become more extreme in some areas as higher average temperatures contribute to increased evaporation rates. The current drought plaguing the West is the worst in 500 years and has drastically reduced available water resources for people and wildlife alike.
  • Increased Invasive Species: Warmer average winter temperatures and less frost are expected to increase the rate, intensity and extent of invasive species, pest and disease outbreaks throughout the region. If warming trends continue as projected, forest die-offs due to pine bark beetles and other pests are expected to become even worse than the recent devastating epidemics.
  • More Wildfires: Warmer, drier conditions due to global warming have caused a four-fold increase in the number of major wildfires in western forests and a six-fold increase in the area of forest burned since the mid-1980s. Scientists predict that the overall area of acreage burned by wildfires will double in size across 11 western states between 2070-2100. States hit particularly hard include Montana, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.
  • Declining Sagebrush Habitat: Big sagebrush habitats throughout the western U.S. could decline by 59 percent before the end of this century, which would have devastating consequences for sage grouse, mule deer, pronghorn and other species that depend on them.
  • Warmer Streams and Rivers: A continuing trend toward higher stream temperatures would significantly reduce viable habitat for trout, salmon and other cold-water fish across the West. The Rocky Mountain region alone could see the area of suitable habitat for cold-water fish decline by 50 percent if average July temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Reduced Wetlands: Global warming poses a significant threat to the region’s diverse wetlands, including areas that provide critical breeding and wintering habitat for waterfowl. The Prairie Pothole Region could see as much as a 91-percent reduction in prairie pothole wetlands by the 2080s, resulting in up to 69-percent reduction in the abundance of ducks breeding there.

There is growing concern that the accelerating pace of change will put alarming numbers of species on the path to extinction. Global warming is projected to reduce boreal habitat in all of the mountain ranges of the Great Basin region, contributing to a 44-percent loss of mammal species, a 23-percent loss of butterfly species, a 30-percent loss of perennial grasses and forbs and a 17-percent loss of shrub species.

Making matters worse is the fact that many continuing problems in the American West, including habitat fragmentation, invasive species and growing demands for water resources, have degraded wildlife habitat and reduced the resiliency of wildlife species to cope with the impacts of global warming that are already underway.

Ultimately, it is the combination of global warming and these other human-induced problems that will fundamentally change the West’s unique and diverse natural systems unless the region and nation takes a much more concerted effort to implement solutions.


Fortunately, solutions are at hand. Effective and affordable technologies are available that can significantly improve the energy efficiency of buildings, appliances, cars and trucks. In addition, clean, renewable energy sources such as the sun, wind and biofuels are becoming increasingly affordable and have tremendous potential to diversify the region’s and nation’s energy portfolio. It is time to re-tap the pioneering spirit that built America and forge a new energy frontier for generations to come. A meaningful strategy should include the following actions:

  1. Place significant, mandatory limits on U.S. global warming pollution.
  2. Reduce the nation’s overall dependence on fossil fuels through greater investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.
  3. Implement strategies to help wildlife survive the effects of global warming that are already underway.
  4. Promote strong wildlife stewardship as an important part of a new energy future.

With a resounding voice and determination, people can change the forecast for fish and wildlife in the West and ensure that their children and grandchildren will have the same opportunities to fish, hunt, and enjoy the natural world they know and love. By acting now to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and invest in cleaner, more sustainable energy resources, the United States will take the single most important conservation action of the 21st century.