The Rocky Mountains A look into the alpine biome’s ecosystems and a potential stressor to them The Rocky Mountains are located in the biome known as the alpine forest. The Rocky Mountains are a large mountain range that is located in western North America which runs more than 3,000 miles, from the northernmost part of British Columbia, in western Canada, to New Mexico, in the southwestern United States. Average January temperatures in the Rocky Mountains can range from -20 °F to 43 °F, with the average precipitation being between 10 to 60 inches per year.
There are three main levels of vegetation in the Rocky Mountain vicinity, the montane, the subalpine, and the alpine levels. The type of vegetation that is able to grow in each surrounding area is based on the atmospheric conditions in the area, which are influenced by several factors including elevation, precipitation, and air pollution (Clow, & Mast 2003). Studies have shown that air pollution causes higher levels of nitrogen deposition in the Rocky Mountain region, which can be a challenge to the local plant community due to the already prevalent lack of variety in vegetation in this region (Burns, 2004).
Based on this information, nitrogen deposition within the Rocky Mountains could be considered a stressor within the alpine biome. The Rocky Mountains, which are also known as the “Rockies”, form the Continental Divide of North America. The Continental Divide is the line that determines whether water will flow to the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean. Twenty-five percent of the water supplied to North America comes from this mountain range. The Rocky Mountains are steep and rugged mountains. They were formed from 80 to 55 million years ago. The range’s highest point, Mount Elbert is located in Colorado and sits at 14,440 feet above sea level.
The varying altitude of the range influences the climate. Certain areas experience what is called the rain shadow effect. This is when an area that has relatively little precipitation due to the effect of a barrier, such as a mountain range, causes winds to lose their moisture before reaching it. The rain shadow effect is a contributing factor the lack of diversity in vegetation located throughout the Rocky Mountain region. This factor combined with nitrogen fixation due to air pollution could be an even larger stressor to the plant life present in this area. Although there is a lack of variety in the egetation located throughout the Rocky Mountain region, there is still a large number of plant species present. More than 5,000 plant species occur in the Rocky Mountains. This is a large number, but is still small in comparison with the amount of land the mountain region stretches across. Lichens are plant-like organisms made up of an alga and a fungus growing in symbiotic association on a solid surface (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2011). Lichens are a species that is native to the Rocky Mountain region and are a very important to the present ecosystems.
At lower altitude levels, they may grow on trees and operate as a food source in the winter. Lichens have been used in the past as air pollution indicators. It is also believed that they may also be used to observe community diversity associated with habitat change (Rogers, & Ryel, 2008). Bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata) and limber pine (Pinus flexilis) are both native species to the alpine biome. They are found on exposed, cold, dry, rocky slopes and high mountain ridges up to the timberline at elevations between 9,200 to 11,800 feet.
These vital species of trees are threatened due to the spread of white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola) in the Rocky Mountain region (Coop, & Schoettle, 2009). Due to the research of both species and their threatened nature, researchers were able to conclude that natural disturbances, such as fires could aid in the restoration of bristlecone and limber pine trees. However, it may take decades to see the desired outcomes to these responses. Natural disturbances play a large role in preserving and maintaining the plant species in the mountain region.
Air pollution is definitely not considered a natural disturbance, and actually has the opposite effect on this region, which could eventually harm animal species because they rely on plant species for food and energy. There is a broad range of animal species located throughout the Rocky Mountain region. Many, such as the Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus) are native to the area and can be found in just about any part. However, there are some species located throughout the Rockies that are threatened or face extinction.
One of these animals is the Boreal toad (Bufo boreas boreas). This toad’s habitat is located in the montane division of the Rocky Mountains. It has experienced a dramatic decline in its population over the past two decades. The main reason for the dramatic decline seems to be related to the infection by the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (“Boreal toad-colorado division,” 2011). Another species located in the Rockies is the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). This species of cat is historically found throughout the mountain range.
It was previously listed as a threatened species but has successfully managed to reach a stable status. Lynx, like many other animal species living in the mountain region prefer living in coniferous forests. A coniferous forest is one made up primarily of cone-bearing trees, like pines, spruces, firs, and larches. This example shows how any harm or damage to the plant population could negatively effect animal populations as well. Air pollution is a very great threat to plant and animal species in the alpine biome, however it is not the only threat.
Humans can have a very big impact on biodiversity. In the past, the way that forests were managed had a large impact on the animal and plant species located within and surrounding them. A large cut in forestation, single species selection and removal of dead and downed trees has made several animal species vulnerable to extinction. Recreation and extensive development by humans has definitely impacted the biodiversity of the Rocky Mountain region as well. Humans build parks, homes, resorts, and all sorts of buildings on the land that was once the natural habitat to many animals and plants.
As I mentioned earlier on, fires are a natural disturbance in forest regions. They aid in the growth and development of different plant species (Gilfillan, 2008). Humans have altered the occurrence of fires, with the use of fuel treatments, which has ultimately altered the water, nitrogen, and carbon cycles in the alpine region (Reinhardt, & Holsinger, 2010). The natural wildfire occurrences in the region also help to produce CO2, which has been identified as the most important compound affecting the stability of Earth’s climate (Gilfillan, Ballentine, Holland, Blagburn, & Lollar, 2008).
Humans should be more aware of the impact that they could ultimately have on the Rocky Mountain region itself, as well as any species located there. There are many factors that could affect the area to take into consideration, whether it be physically altering conditions or altering the atmospheric conditions being introduced into the area. Humans simply inhabiting the Rocky Mountain region could affect the plant and animal communities living there. The human population is not very dense in the mountain region. The average population is four people per square kilometer, or 10 people per square mile.
There are few cities with over 50,000. The population of the region grew rapidly between 1950 and 1990. There are ten major cities in the region. Missoula, Montana has less then 62,000 inhabitants. Helena, Montana has more than 27,000 inhabitants. Both Idaho Falls and Pocatello are located in Idaho and each has about 52,000 inhabitants. Laramie, Wyoming has around 26,000 inhabitants. Denver, Colorado has more than 560,000 people living there. Colorado Springs, Colorado has almost 370,000 inhabitants. Santa Fe, New Mexico has about 68,000 people living there.
Las Vegas, New Mexico has about 15,000 inhabitants. Albuquerque, New Mexico has 480,000 inhabitants (U. S. Census Bureau, Population Division. 2010). Neither the United States, nor Canada currently has a population plan in place to control the population of the Rocky Mountain region. However, there is a Sustainable Development plan in the United States that was signed in 1990 by George Herbert Walker Bush. This plan aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come (United States Department of Agriculture, 2009).
Sustainable agriculture research and education has ultimately permitted fewer farmers with reduced labor demands to produce the majority of the food and fiber in the United States. Conservation tillage is a farming process, which helps prevent land loss to erosion and water pollution and enhances the carbon binding process. Alpine regions belong to the most species-rich ecosystems and large parts of them are agriculturally used. Agricultural management of the alpine habitats goes back to early medieval times and is an important determinant of alpine biodiversity.
The availability of arable land is less than the average of 0. 7 ha per capita in the U. S. This is the lowest that the rate has ever been. Unless we find a way to decrease the amount of land that is being destroyed, we will eventually run out of natural resources. The current sources of energy found in the Rocky Mountain regions include the use of fossil fuels, such as coal. Solar, wind and thermal energy are also produced and used in the region. These types of energy alternatives have many pros. The first con that can be seen is the physical effects to the ecosystems that they may present.
For example, if trees need to be cut down to establish energy sources, this could harm the plant or animal communities. Another con is the air and water pollution that is given off when extracting, or using fossil fuels. In 1915, Congress passed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act. Legislators realized that the Rockies possessed many scenic and natural wonders. They sought to preserve these. Early superintendents tried to develop roads, backcountry cabins, and trails to blend with the surroundings. The rangers employed at the park manipulated the landscape to look more natural.
Fires were suppressed, seedlings were planted and predators were controlled. The National Park Service purchased private lands ad removed buildings, roads, post offices, driveways, irrigation ditches, and fences. Although these steps were taken to preserve the natural environment or the Rocky Mountain region, they ultimately helped to harm it. As an individual, I feel that I can help by informing and educating others about the actual impact that we, as humans have on our earth and ecosystems located throughout it.
The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act and the Sustainable Development plan that I mentioned earlier are two very good acts in place to help preserve the land. We must also take into consideration that air pollution is a major contributor to the harm being cased to the Rocky Mountain region. This type of pollution could be considered a major stressor within the Alpine Forest biome, and should not be taken lightly. It could potentially affect all plant and animal species in this area. Nitrogen deposition within the Rocky Mountains could be considered a stressor within the alpine biome.
References Boreal toad-colorado division of wildlife. (2011, April 14). Retrieved on 25 April 2011 from http://wildlife. state. co. us/WildlifeSpecies/SpeciesOfConcern/Amphibians/BorealToad. htm Burns, D. A. (2004). The effects of atmospheric nitrogen deposition in the rocky mountains of colorado and southern wyoming, usa—a critical review. Environmental Pollution, 127, 257–269. Clow, D. W. , & Mast, M. A. (2003). Atmospheric deposition maps for the rocky mountains. Atmospheric Enviroment, 37, 4881-4892. Coop, J. D. , & Schoettle, A. W. (2009).
Regeneration of rocky mountain bristlecone pine (pinus aristata) and limber pine (pinus flexilis) three decades after stand-replacing fires. Forest Ecology and Management, 257(3), 893-903 Gilfillan, M. V. , Ballentine, C. J. , Holland, G. , Blagburn, D. , & Lollar, B,S, et al. (2008). The noble gas geochemistry of natural co2 gas reservoirs from the colorado plateau and rocky mountain provinces, usa. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 72, 1174-1198. Lichen. (2011). Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved May 5, 2011, from http://www. merriam-webster. com/dictionary/lichen
Population Estimates: Incorporated Places and Minor Civil Divisions, by State, (2000-2009). U. S. Census Bureau, Population Division. 2010. Retrieved 25 April 2011, from http://www. census. gov/popest/cities/SUB-EST2009-4. html Rogers, P. C. , & Ryel, R. J. (2008). Lichen community change in response to succession in aspen forests of the southern rocky mountains. Forest Ecology and Management, 256, 1760-1770. Sustainable Development. (2009). Unites States Department of Agriculture online. Retrieved April 25, 2011 from http://www. usda. gov/oce/ sustainable/index. htm.