Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Monday, August 14, 2023

New grasslands report synthesizes research needed to adapt to climate change

CU Boulder-led project focuses on actionable science to address next steps

Dark foreboding skies span over northern region grasslands
Grasslands on a gloomy day in the NC CASC study region
- Brian Miller

Anyone working in U.S. grasslands—land managers, Tribal leaders, hunters, farmers, and ranchers—knows these ecosystems have been changing quickly. Increasing temperatures, drought, fire, altered wildlife migrations, and other impacts of climate change have taken a toll, leading to a future of uncertainty. 

In response, a research team led by CU Boulder-based North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center (NC CASC) set out to synthesize all we know about these key ecosystems. But, instead of launching into new research to understand threats to grasslands and what scientific research can do about it, the team took a different approach. 

Heather Yocum, social science lead at NC CASC, and Christy Miller Hesed, regional climate adaptation scientist, coordinated the Grasslands Synthesis Project. With the help of experts in the field, they dug into hundreds of existing grassland management plans produced by federal and state agencies, Tribal Nations, and private landowners such as The Nature Conservancy. 

“Rather than starting with a synthesis of the scientific literature, we began by assessing the needs identified in grassland management plans and documents themselves,” said Heather Yocum. “Here’s the challenge given climate change, what information do we need to meet those challenges?”

Today, the team has compiled a first-of-its-kind comprehensive illustration of Northern Plains grasslands and the climate change-related challenges grassland managers face. The report is rich with information and data from the people who rely on those landscapes. The work, funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, was recently published in Conservation Science and Practice.

The first challenge was to identify broadly shared grassland management challenges in the face of a warming climate— a difficult task given the Northern Plains grasslands span over 180 million acres across seven states. The area is a patchwork of federal, state, Tribal, and private lands. Grasslands are important ecosystems that support local economies, livestock grazing, diverse plant and animal communities, and large-scale migrations of big game ungulates, grassland birds, and waterfowl. 

To create an overview of current challenges and research needs in the region, the team gathered data in two ways: they pored over current management plans and explored scientific literature. 

The reviewers were made up of two expert working groups, one focused on synthesizing the broadly shared grassland management information needs. The second focused on synthesizing the region’s current climate and ecological knowledge to identify where relevant information exists, and how future research can address these information gaps. Over 20 months and 96 Zoom meetings, they synthesized data from hundreds of documents. 

From the management plans, they identified 70 questions broadly shared by grassland managers in the region. For example:

  • Where are grasslands most likely to be lost? 
  • How will climate change affect animal species of conservation concern? 
  • How can public understanding of grasslands and their importance increase?
  • What novel ways of thinking are needed to successfully manage grasslands amidst climate change?

“These broadly shared questions can serve as a roadmap for researchers looking to conduct science that will support grassland adaptation to climate change,” said Miller Hesed. “And where we have identified answers to these questions in the scientific literature, researchers and others can work to develop tools so that the information is accessible and useable by grassland managers.” 

Yocum and Miller Hesed call this “actionable science”, and the next step will connect managers with researchers and organizations who can address the pressing questions with research to come up with effective ways to better manage grasslands facing a variety of threats from climate change. 

The work is ongoing in other ways, too. They’re leading workshops for grassland managers, releasing usable data for researchers and land managers, and compiling two open-file reports published by USGS that will be cited in the Fifth National Climate Assessment. To get their findings to a broader audience, they’ll continue to release two-page fact sheets, Prairie Climate Companions, that break down findings into topics such as fire and water availability. 

And, this summer they have boots on the ground. A graduate student is conducting interviews with federal and state grassland managers in the field to define further how actionable science can support the needs of the region. At the same time, another graduate student will synthesize social science, an important piece of the puzzle in supporting the management of grasslands that are of great economic and cultural importance across the region. 

“This work doesn’t sit on the shelf, but rather we are using these findings to help inform future research and collaborations in grasslands ecosystems at the North Central CASC,” said Miller Hesed. 


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