A research worker examines the landscape for ecological changes in the study area. [Courtesy photo]

In the face of a changing climate and increasing human pressures on the Colorado Plateau, how do we meet the needs of people without permanently degrading our natural resources?  

It’s a question with no easy answers, but Canyonlands Research Center (CRC) is working to gather scientific data beneficial to land management agencies tasked with maintaining the health of the land and its multiple uses.

The arid desert and forested areas of the Colorado Plateau range in elevation from below 2,000 to above 13,000 feet. Two major rivers run through the plateau, the Colorado and the Green, providing water to millions of people in the United States and Mexico.

At the CRC, based out of the Nature Conservancy’s Dugout Ranch 20 miles northwest of Monticello,

the study area encompasses about 840,000-acres of private and public lands with variations in elevation, ecology and land-use history.

Kristen Redd is the field station manager at CRC, and said the research happening at Dugout Ranch is relevant to live in the desert.

The Redd family has long-standing ties to Dugout Ranch, which is an active cattle ranch as well as an outdoor laboratory.  Redd said that the Redd family ran cattle for decades before selling Dugout Ranch to The Nature Conservancy about 20 years ago. Redd’s husband, Matt, manages the ranching operation. For many years, his mother Heidi, had cattle there. In 2015, The Nature Conservancy purchased the herd and hired Matt to oversee it. Heidi still lives on the property as part of the Dugout Ranch purchase agreement. 

“We will have to change in order to preserve, protect and restore,” Redd said.  “The way humans usually are, they use (land) until they can’t use it that way anymore, and have to change their behavior.”

Research conducted by Claire Karban at the CRC is about the region’s dry lands and how seedlings emerge and survive. She is a PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

“Dry land ecosystems make up 40 percent of global land surface and support about one-sixth of the world’s population,” Karban said.  

Grazing is an important part of people’s lives across global dry lands. “But, 73 percent of range lands in dry areas have been degraded,” she said. “Land degradation leads to increased water and wind erosion.”

She said her goal is to improve dry land restoration success by determining which species to restore. Restoration projects often only restore dominant species or species with readily available seed.

Karban said that keeping dry land ecosystems healthy is likely to become more challenging due to the changing climate.

“Most models for southeastern Utah predict hotter and drier conditions,” she said. “Restoration would likely become more difficult as water became even more limiting. There could be large changes to biological soil crust and native plant communities, and the ecosystem services that they provide.”

Redd said she has seen firsthand some of the changes to the area’s climate. For example, she said that storms are now more torrential in the summer, and the torrential rains create more run-off instead of absorbing into the ground.

“We’re experiencing rainfall at different times of year, in different amounts” she said.  “Our cool season grasses aren’t growing as well … we’re looking at grasses being different, so our grazing patterns need to be different. It’s dramatic. We understand we are going to have to change our management practices to meet the changes in the landscape.”

The Indian ricegrass and the needle and thread grasses are not as prevalent as they have been in the past, Redd said.

The native grasses, sand dropseed and the gramma grasses, are starting to move into the spring seasons because the climate is favorable in the spring now. 

The United States Geological Survey just completed a study on galleta grass. This study looked at the monsoon rain patterns and how changes in seasonal moisture would effect the grass’ viability. 

In the most recent edition of CRC’s annual newsletter, published in autumn of 2017, there was an article about a study done last year at CRC on galleta grass, or Pleuraphis jamesi.

According to the article, galleta grass is one of the most widespread native perennial grasses on the Colorado Plateau, and provides forage for livestock and wildlife across the region.  

The study assessed the ability of galleta grass to adapt to changes in the yearly rainfall patterns. While the article said that further study is needed, the grass shows promise as an adaptable species that could do well in a region with intensive land usage and a changing climate.  

Karban said, “I like to think about climate change like this: Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get. So climate change is a change in the patterns that we expect to see.”

The climate record is based on observations from direct measurements and remote sensing, like satellites, as well as paleo-climate reconstruction data, like ice cores, she said.

The direct measurements go back to the mid-19th century, Karban said, and paleo-climatic reconstruction looks at what the climate was like hundreds of millions of years ago.

“Compared to the climate record, we know that the atmosphere and oceans are getting warmer, sea ice is melting, sea level is rising, and concentrations of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, in our atmosphere are rising,” Karban said.

Working closely with scientists and land managers from other agencies and making sure that the research performed at CRC is useful to them is important, Karban said.  

María Cristina Rengifo works in the lab at CRC studying forest-range land soil ecology. Rengifo, who is studying for a masters at Northern Arizona University, said the research project that she is working on will “explore and expand the understanding of the characteristics, functions and services that biological soil crusts have and provide.”

“Biological soil crusts have several ecosystem functions,” she said. “They establish the soils and prevent wind and water erosion. They are involved in nutrient cycles and creating fertile soils. They are also involved in hydrological processes that are beyond important. By identifying the species that would adapt and resist better to future climates, we restore environments more efficiently.”

Areas in the CRC Study Area have historically been preserved, while others have experienced grazing, mining and tourism.

“It’s really a special landscape,” Redd said. “The more we learn about it, the better stewards we can be. We can be in a position where we have the knowledge, and the love and care, to do our best by this place.”

At Dugout Ranch study area scientists gather research that may aid ranching and other uses

“Our grazing patterns need to be different. It’s dramatic. We understand we are going to have to change our management practices to meet the changes in the landscape.”