Starving polar bears. Bird extinctions. Catastrophic weather events.
Talking about the effects of climate change can be a real downer.
Trevor Bloom, a botanist for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative and a wildlife guide for Brushbuck Guide Services, prefers a conversation that’s about hope and action.
“A lot of climate change messages are really depressing,” he said. “People shut down when they’re depressed.”
Bloom, 27, is giving them something to do. He and fellow researchers are enlisting everyday folks in a citizen scientist plant-monitoring effort at Blacktail Butte that will reveal how climate change is altering natural events in Jackson Hole. It’s information that could aid land and wildlife managers, he said.
“Climate change is happening, and as a society we have to accept that and listen to the science to make informed decisions,” Bloom said. “We live in this amazing period of data collection and scientific advancement [in which] we can address these issues with new knowledge.”
Wildflower Watch participants note whether certain plants — yarrow, serviceberry and scarlet gilia, for example — are budding, flowering or fruiting and record their observations on paper or, eventually, in the Nature’s Notebook app. Professional researchers are making their own observations, but while they are looking at dozens of species the citizen scientists focus on eight or 10 of the more easily identifiable varieties.
The information goes into a national database and is being studied at a local level. Researchers are comparing today’s Blacktail Butte data with the 1960s and ’70s observations of Frank Craighead Jr., which were published in the book “For Everything There is a Season: The Sequence of Natural Events in the Grand Teton-Yellowstone Region.”
“We’re already observing certain species of plants coming out several weeks before Frank Craighead did,” Bloom said.
Changes in phenology — the seasonal timing of ecological events like bird migration, fish spawning and leaf emergence — are good clues about what is happening in the environment, Bloom said.
“Many phenological events are associated with temperature,” he said. “As a result of climate change, phenology is shifting, and it’s often stated that shifts in the seasonal timing of events are some of the first and best clues on how climate change is impacting an area.”
What happens with plants cascades through the ecosystem, affecting everything from animal migration patterns and bear foraging habits to the availability of nectar to pollinators and migratory birds.
The Wildflower Watch project just received a grant through the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole, Bloom said. In addition to the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, the project involves the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Fifty-five volunteers participated in the pilot. When the full program opens this spring the organizers will host public events to train citizen scientists and will look to partner with schools, nature organizations and others.
“This can reach a broad range of people, from members of the Native Plant Society that are expert botanists to children,” Bloom said. “The idea is that it’s really accessible, and any time you go and hike at Blacktail Butte you can make these observations. There’s not a level of commitment: From going once to 100 times it’s all appreciated.”
In addition to raising awareness about science and making a contribution to it, Wildflower Watch aims to engage people and make them feel they can make a difference.
“One thing you can do is come and help us build this data set,” he said.
Bloom said researchers who compared plant patterns in the Concord, Massachusetts, area, with the observations recorded by Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s found that many species Thoreau saw were now locally extinct or soon to be. The ones that didn’t survive were the ones that didn’t adapt, he said.
The good news in Jackson Hole, he said, is that “none of the plants we are monitoring that Frank Craighead monitored have gone locally extinct.” The Blacktail Butte research will help identify which plants aren’t adapting to climate change and are thus at risk. That could shape decisions about conservation management.
“Our findings may help prevent huge population declines of plant species we may find to be climatically vulnerable,” he said.
Bloom’s connection to Jackson Hole goes back 20 years. He moved here when he was 8 and became a snowboarder, hiker and Boy Scout.
He went to Lewis and Clark College, and while working toward a degree in biology he studied spiders and scorpions in the Dominican Republic.
“I was the kind of guy they’d send into caves and up the mountainsides,” he said.
The cave explorations led to his discovery of two kinds of blind spiders.
“They were the first blind spiders found in the Dominican Republic, and it was the first time two different species of blind spiders were found in the same cave,” he said.
While earning his master’s at Western Washington University, Bloom and his research assistant, Matt Kneipp, studied 76 alpine sites in the Rocky Mountain chain, looking at how climate change and wildfires are affecting one high-elevation wildflower species, the spotted saxifrage.
They’ve created a campaign called Climb-It Change to raise awareness of climate change issues in the mountains. They hope to release a short documentary about their Rockies research adventures, a film Bloom hopes will be inspiring.
“Climate change is arguably the most important ecological issue of our time,’ he said. “A major intention of mine is to engage youth in this issue so as it unfolds in the Tetons we’re out in front of it.”
Bloom says we shouldn’t give up on trying to address climate change.
“I don’t think it’s too late,” he said. “There’s hope, but we have to be realistic.”
Editors note: The online version of this story was change to reflect misspellings of Brushbuck, Kneipp and Trevor Bloom's email address and Lewis and Clark College.