Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

In Glacier National Park, Ice Isn't the Only Thing That's Disappearing

Animals
In Glacier National Park, Ice Isn't the Only Thing That's Disappearing
Cracker Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana. Jacob W. Frank / NPS / Flickr

By Jason Bittel

High up in the mountains of Montana's Glacier National Park, there are two species of insect that only a fly fishermen or entomologist would probably recognize. Known as stoneflies, these aquatic bugs are similar to dragonflies and mayflies in that they spend part of their lives underwater before emerging onto the land, where they transform into winged adults less than a half inch long. However, unlike those other species, stoneflies do their thing only where cold, clean waters flow.


In fact, these flies live pretty much exclusively downstream from glaciers, snowfields, and frigid alpine springs, and they have evolved a nifty suite of antifreeze compounds to make it all possible. It's a pretty cool trick — one that has helped the insects survive for hundreds of millions of years in frigid conditions that have sent others packing. But what makes these insects special may also be their undoing — and soon.

In November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the western glacier stonefly (Zapada glacier) and the meltwater lednian stonefly (Lednia tumana) to the Endangered Species List, both under the designation of threatened. And while the two species are extremely sensitive to pollution, as all stoneflies are, another very significant risk factor is what triggered the listing.

From left: meltwater lednian stonefly (Lednia tumana); a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey looks for aquatic insects in an alpine stream at Glacier National Park.

Glacier NPS

"All of the glaciers in Glacier National Park are expected to be gone by 2030," said Noah Greenwald, director of endangered species for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). Like, all of them all of them. Ten years from now. And without giant chunks of ice to chill their streams and supply life-sustaining meltwater, the stoneflies cannot exist.

"In 1900, there were 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park," said Greenwald. "There are now 25."

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the disappearance of the park's glaciers could also bring more wildfires to the region and negatively affect native trout species, which have also evolved to live in cold water. But climate change cometh first for the stoneflies, and that right soon.

Clockwise from top: a meltwater stonefly at Glacier National Park; close-up of two meltwater lednian stoneflies; close-up of western glacier stonefly (Zapada glacier)

Glacier NPS / Flickr. Western glacier stonefly: Joe Giersch / USGS

How, you may wonder, would an Endangered Species Act listing help these seemingly doomed species?

Well, the act would have previously required the FWS to designate critical habitat for the stoneflies. But the Trump administration announced changes this summer that allow the agency to opt out of declaring critical habitat in cases when "it may not be prudent" — as the FWS phrased it in the stoneflies' entry into the Federal Register. Cases, ahem, linked to climate change, for instance.

This is akin to saying climate change is a problem without a solution. But there is a scientific solution, of course. We need to cut carbon emissions. As much and as quickly as possible. The fact that the Trump administration hasn't made any meaningful effort to do so does not mean that it is impossible by definition. Or that we should simply give up on the stoneflies and their habitat, and so, so much more.

The CBD and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation have been petitioning for the western glacier stonefly's listing since 2010, and WildEarth Guardians has been pushing for federal protections for the meltwater lednian stonefly since 2007. And while the non-designation of critical habitat is disappointing, Greenwald said the FWS still must develop a recovery plan for both species, though it's unclear at this stage what that will look like. But the listings are important for another reason as well.

"Listing provides information to people," said Greenwald. "Really, it raises the alarm bells in terms of climate change."

Of course, the stoneflies themselves have a stake in all of this too. Every species has an inherent right to exist, and what's more, their loss would ripple throughout the ecosystems they inhabit. Stonefly nymphs shred leaf material and other aquatic detritus, which helps unlock nutrients and facilitates their spread throughout the ecosystem. Stoneflies also serve as yummy snacks for amphibians, other insects, and the trout that fishermen lust after. And after the adults emerge from their cool waters to breed, they die, providing yet another buffet for other critters. In short, stoneflies are a critical base layer of the local food web.

In the end, the real story of the stoneflies is one of urgency. The extinctions and other climate-fueled changes scientists keep warning us about aren't like some far-off, Nostradamus predictions. They'll be here before we know it. In fact, we are already watching them unfold.

"I think for anyone out there who's really doubting how rapidly our world is changing, how serious the threat climate change is, they should pay attention to these stoneflies," said Greenwald.

Reposted with permission from onEarth.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres delivers a video speech at the high-level meeting of the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council UNHRC in Geneva, Switzerland on Feb. 22, 2021. Xinhua / Zhang Cheng via Getty Images

By Anke Rasper

"Today's interim report from the UNFCCC is a red alert for our planet," said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

The report, released Friday, looks at the national climate efforts of 75 states that have already submitted their updated "nationally determined contributions," or NDCs. The countries included in the report are responsible for about 30% of the world's global greenhouse gas emissions.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

New Delhi's smog is particularly thick, increasing the risk of vehicle accidents. SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP via Getty Images

India's New Delhi has been called the "world air pollution capital" for its high concentrations of particulate matter that make it harder for its residents to breathe and see. But one thing has puzzled scientists, according to The Guardian. Why does New Delhi see more blinding smogs than other polluted Asian cities, such as Beijing?

Read More Show Less

Trending

About EcoWatch

A bridge over the Delaware river connects New Hope, Pennsylvania with Lambertville, New Jersey. Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images

In a historic move, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted Thursday to ban hydraulic fracking in the region. The ban was supported by all four basin states — New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York — putting a permanent end to hydraulic fracking for natural gas along the 13,539-square-mile basin, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Read More Show Less
A 3-hour special film by EarthxTV calls for protection of the Amazon and its indigenous populations. EarthxTV.org

To save the planet, we must save the Amazon rainforest. To save the rainforest, we must save its indigenous peoples. And to do that, we must demarcate their land.

Read More Show Less
A rare bird not seen for 170 years has turned up in Borneo's South Kalimantan province in Indonesia. robas / Getty Images

In October 2020, two men living in Indonesia's South Kalimantan province on Borneo managed to catch a bird that they had never seen before. They photographed and released it, then sent the pictures to birdwatching organizations in the area for identification.

Read More Show Less