Climate change theorists have projected striking changes in local weather on earth due to increases in temperature. These predicted changes may cause melting glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels, increasing desertification and other environmental changes which seem likely to affect presumed indicator species as harbingers of more significant changes. Wild sheep, even though they are one of the more successful mammalian taxa since Pleistocene times, exhibit a suite of adaptations to glacier driven environments which may be presumed to render them sensitive to environmental changes. The authors began investigation with these assumptions by comparing changes, as determined by satellite imagery, in glacier extent in our study areas in Denali National Park, Alaska, during the last 30 years. Our findings showed the extent of glacial retreat in Alaska during this time period was approximately 40-50 percent as measured by ablation zone and retreat of terminal moraines. During the first half of this 30-year period, Dall sheep (Ovis dalli dalli) populations were stable at historically recorded highs. In the early to mid-1990s, Dall sheep populations in Alaska declined from an historical estimated high of 75,000 sheep to the presently estimated 40-50,000. The declines seemed to be weather related, on the basis of the presumption that lamb survival rates are primarily weather-mediated in Alaska. Changes in local weather appear, at this point, to be correlated with oscillation in the Pacific Current in the Northern Pacific ocean. Of course, changes in local weather affect forage abundance and quality seasonally. In investigating a possible linkage of weather to seasonal forage abundance and quality, we also investigated changes in snow and ice extent and distribution, as well as increased water runoff associated with permafrost and depleted glaciers. Databases were assembled from a wide variety of remotely sensed satellite data, ground-based observations, and historical data bases relating to Dall sheep habitats in selected study areas. Alaska's sheep habitats are typified by long, narrow bands of mountainous uplifts generally arrayed west-to-east, and perpendicular to prevailing south-to-north weather-front movements. Classic Dall sheep habitat occurs on snow-shadowed slopes within these narrow mountainous habitats. On the basis of these data, we offer an explanatory hypothesis relating Dall sheep welfare to weather and climate-influenced nutrition and a monitoring scheme, which should produce data sufficient to test the robustness of this hypothesis. If correlated with population changes, the methods used in our comparative observations may provide long-term monitoring tools for wildlife managers and be applicable in other widely-dispersed wild sheep habitats. If no significant correlations emerge from our modeling exercises, the notion that wild sheep are a sufficiently sensitive species to be seen as an indicator species will have to be reexamined.
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Initial Results from a Study of Climatic Changes and the Effect on Wild Sheep Habitat in Selected Study Areas of Alaska