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USGS Mendenhall Postdoctoral  Research Fellowship Program

14-25. Montane ecosystems in flux with contemporary climate changes: using integrated analyses to illuminate distributional patterns, mechanisms of change, and conservation opportunities.

Montane ecosystems provide drinking water for >25% of Earth’s people (via precipitation interception and snowpack retention), constitute some of the most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems (given the sharp physiographic and climatic gradients they encompass), and represent most of the highly-protected (e.g., wilderness) areas in North America and worldwide.  Unfortunately, however, biotas of these systems are relatively understudied, and magnitudes of change in climatic parameters have outpaced change in many nearby lower-elevation ecosystems.  Given increased extent and intensity of land-use changes at lower elevations, montane systems are increasingly expected to serve as biodiversity reservoirs, climate refugia (Dobrowski 2011) and corridors, and ‘keystones’ in future landscape conservation.

Research in montane systems across the ~40 million-ha hydrographic Great Basin since 1994 has illustrated that distribution of a widely recognized mountain-dwelling denizen (Ochotona princeps; American pika) has experienced dramatic climate-related shifts (e.g., 40% of sites now extinct) since early-20th-century records of pikas (Beever et al. 2003, 2010, 2011).  Furthermore, rates of site-level extinction and upslope retraction of the lower-elevation boundary of occupation were about 5 and 11 times more rapid, respectively, during 1999-2008 compared to during the 20th Century. O. princeps was petitioned for ESA listing in 2009, over climate-related concerns; collectively, these events prompted the initiation of >50 pika scientific efforts.

Biologically relevant, fine-scaled characterization of hydrological dynamics, microclimates, and vegetation in a unified model is sorely lacking for montane ecosystems and their wildlife.  This characterization serves as the foundation for improved understanding of patch occupancy, metapopulation dynamics, water balance, identification of climatic microrefugia, current and future habitat connectivity, vulnerability assessment, and conservation opportunities.

Conservation and management of montane ecosystems and their biotas will benefit from applied investigation in several research frontiers: a) bioclimatic-niche modeling with spatially varying range determinants (e.g., growing-season precipitation in the Great Basin vs. winter-cold stress accompanying declining snowpacks in Montana vs. earlier vegetation senescence and drying of ephemeral streams in the Columbia River Gorge); b) hierarchical models of patch occupancy, with fine-scale measures of biologically relevant predictors; c) incorporation of fine-scale hydrologically derived products into mechanism-based description of (current and future) species distribution; d) inclusion of climate variables that capture the seasonal interaction of water and energy; and e) investigation of whether climatic status of sites (i.e., its position relative to a species’ overall geographic range or bioclimatic niche) or magnitude or velocity of climate change (Loarie et al. 2009, Beever et al. 2010) best describe the pattern of recent wildlife losses.  American pikas have served as the poster-child of numerous ecological concepts (e.g., metapopulations, source-sink dynamics, ‘sky islands’ of Island Biogeography Theory), and our data and data layers provide a rich postdoctoral opportunity to better understand mechanisms underlying faunal distribution shifts, which is critical for informing vulnerability assessments, conservation and adaptation strategies, and management actions (Beever et al. 2011).

We have been pioneering the development and application of fine-scaled, spatially explicit approaches to describe aspects of the environment critical for testing hypotheses regarding mechanisms underlying faunal change (Millette et al. 2010, Dobrowski et al. 2009, Dobrowski et al. 2011).  Research opportunities for the Mendenhall Fellow include application to new, data-rich domains (e.g., Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem); incorporation of new (higher-resolution, biologically relevant) data layers; extension of pika results to other species, with existing paired-calibration microclimate sensors; development of richer, more nuanced and accurate bioclimatic-niche models with vegetation, hydrology, and climate; testing relationships of vegetation (diet) chemistry and animal physiology; multiscale investigation and modeling of genetic similarity and connectivity; among others.  Fortuitously, these diverse data can address a multiplicity of other related wildlife- and civically important research questions.  To that end, we envision that spatially explicit maps of these high-resolution data products will be produced and shared, at least for our target domain(s).  The fine-scaled, multi-spectral maps of vegetation can be used, for example, not only to describe wildlife-vegetation relationships across many species, but to calibrate and verify other datasets, many of which are broader-scale.  The hydrologic datasets can also be used to improve calculation of water budgets and the hydrologic cycle, as well as vegetation-alliance and -community mapping and characterization.

Opportunity for robust investigation at several spatial resolutions exists for the Fellow.  Range-wide investigations would likely use existing data – e.g., ecological-niche modeling using (novel) finer-resolution, biologically relevant descriptors.  Research within smaller domains could address the importance of hypothesized mechanisms of direct or indirect effects of climate on alpine inhabitants such as pikas, with targeted sampling to bolster sample sizes or quantify a suspected driver.  Example mechanisms include increased water-deficit stress on individuals; less-succulent vegetation providing less metabolic water; declining duration of snowpack or increased frequency of rain-on-snow events in winter compromising insulating properties of snowpack; importance of cold-air pooling, rock-ice features, or cold-air bodies (e.g., Columbia River).  Assessment or incorporation of downscaled climate data, as it relates to (a) focal species, represents another key research opportunity.  The northern Rocky Mountains represent a particularly pika-data-rich domain that has received no regional-scale research attention, to date.  We also particularly welcome applicants working with multiple lines of genetic evidence and novel markers to investigate divergence and connectivity at multiple spatial and temporal resolutions.  Given the importance of ecological services (e.g., soil retention, facilitation of mutualisms, facilitation of connectivity, dissipation of energy from pulse disturbances), we also welcome proposals investigating dynamics of wildlife-relevant functioning in montane ecosystems.  Working with derived measures of climate, including any of paleontological, historic, recent, current, and future, particularly as they relate to wildlife or ecological functioning, is also welcome.


Beever, E. A., P. E. Brussard, and J. Berger. 2003. Patterns of apparent extirpation among isolated populations of pikas (Ochotona princeps) in the Great Basin. Journal of Mammalogy 84:37-54.

Beever, E. A., C. Ray, P. W. Mote, and J. L. Wilkening. 2010. Testing alternative models of climate-mediated extirpations. Ecological Applications 20:164-178.

Beever, E. A., C. Ray, J. L. Wilkening, P. F. Brussard, and P. W. Mote. 2011. Contemporary climate change alters the pace and drivers of extinction. Global Change Biology 17:2054-2070.

Dobrowski, S. Z. 2011. A climatic basis for microrefugia: the influence of terrain on climate. Global Change Biology 17:1022-1035.

Dobrowski, S. Z., J. T. Abatzoglou, J. A. Greenberg, and S. G. Schladow. 2009. How much influence does landscape-scale physiography have on air temperature in a mountain environment? Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 149:1751-1758.

Dobrowski, S. Z., J. H. Thorne, J. A. Greenberg, H. D. Safford, A. R. Mynsberge, S. M. Crimmins, and A. K. Swanson. 2011. Modeling plant ranges over 75 years of climate change in California, USA: temporal transferability and species traits. Ecological Monographs 81:241-257.

Loarie, S. R., P. B. Duffy, H. Hamilton, G. P. Asner, C. B. Field, and D. D. Ackerly. 2009. The velocity of climate change. Nature 462:1052-U1111.

Millette, T. L., B. A. Argow, E. Marcano, C. Hayward, C. S. Hopkinson, and V. Valentine. 2010. Salt marsh geomorphological analyses via integration of multitemporal multispectral remote sensing with LIDAR and GIS. Journal of Coastal Research 26:809-816.

Proposed Duty Station: Bozeman, MT

Areas of Ph.D.: Montane ecology, biogeography, conservation biology, population ecology, community ecology, ecohydrology, physiology, biological climatology, or synecology (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered).

Qualifications: Applicants must meet one of the following qualifications - Research Biologist, Research Ecologist, Research Hydrologist, Research Geographer.

(This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above. However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of theposition will be made by the Human Resources specialist).

Research Advisor(s): Erik Beever, (406) 994-7670,; Greg Pederson (406) 994-7390,; Thomas Millette, ( Mt. Holyoke College), (413) 538-2813,; Solomon Dobrowski (UMontana), (406) 243-6068,

Human Resources Office Contact: Robert Hosinski, (916) 278-9397,

Go back to Summary of Opportunities

U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
URL: Beever.htm
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Last modified: 18:55:03 Tue 23 Jul 2013
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