Vegetation projections for Wind Cave National Park with three future climate scenarios: Final report in completion of Task Agreement J8W07100052

National Park Service Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/WICA/NRTRT--2013/681
By: , and 



The effects of climate change on the natural resources protected by Parks will likely be substantial, but geographically variable, due to local variation in climate trajectories and differences among ecosystems in their vulnerability to climate change. The projections of general circulation models (GCMs) indicate the possible magnitude and direction of future climate change for a region, but the utility of these projections for more local scales, those of individual National Park Service (NPS) units, are more uncertain because the coarse-scale GCMs lack much of the topographic detail that alters local climates. In addition, complex, interacting effects of temperature, precipitation, atmospheric CO2 concentrations, fire, and herbivores on the vegetation that is the foundational natural resource of many NPS units present challenges in assessing the effects of projected future climates on plant and animal assemblages managed by the NPS.

In spring 2009, Wind Cave National Park (WICA) served as a case study in a workshop assessing the use of scenario planning as a tool for park management planning in the face of rapidly changing climate. One outcome of the workshop was the recognized need for quantitative models to better understand the range of possible vegetation changes under different future climates and management decisions. This report addresses this need; it describes our adaptation of a dynamic global vegetation model (DGVM) to WICA vegetation and the resulting projections of future vegetation under three future climate scenarios and 11 management scenarios determined by Park natural resource managers.

Wind Cave National Park lies along a narrow transition zone between the ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests of the Black Hills and the mixed grass prairie that once extended with few interruptions over the lower, gentler terrain, subject to warmer, drier climate to the east and south of the Park. The location and character of this transition is strongly influenced by fire frequency and intensity (Brown and Sieg 1999). Furthermore, the mixed grass prairie occupies a broader transition zone between eastern tallgrass prairie and the shortgrass prairie of the western Great Plains. The dominance of species characteristic of these two prairie types varies with soil moisture availability, evaporative demand, and recent grazing history (Cogan et al. 1999). In addition, Wind Cave lies near the midpoint of a long gradient of C3 (cool season) grass dominance to the north and C4 (warm season) grass dominance to the south.

The ecotonal position of WICA may make it particularly sensitive to climate change. For example, small changes in fire frequency and/or intensity and the vigor of trees vs. grass could dramatically shift the proportions of these two lifeforms. The Park hydrology is also sensitive to changes in the balance between infiltration of precipitation and evapotranspiration, as on average, only a small fraction of annual precipitation reaches the deeper soil layers that feed permanent streamflow. The resources at risk at Wind Cave NP include the Cave itself, as well as small backcountry caves, a genetically important bison herd, and other prairie species including the black-tailed prairie dog and endangered black-footed ferrets. All of these resources will be directly affected by climate change impacts on vegetation and hydrology.

Natural resource management challenges at WICA are substantial, diverse, and intertwined. Aboveground, the park has been recognized as exemplary for its high quality vegetation (Marriot et al. 1999), though the park is relatively small for the diversity of vegetation types and species that it supports. Even without a changing climate, maintaining the integrity of the plant communities is complicated by the park’s legislated responsibility to maintain viable populations of bison, elk and pronghorn. In addition, the federally endangered black-footed ferret was recently re-introduced to the park. This species requires large extents of prairie dog towns for prey and habitat. Prairie dogs impact vegetation by constant clipping, grazing and soil disturbance, thereby affecting plant composition and productivity. Moreover, naturally high interannual climate variability and the strong influence of precipitation on grass productivity in this region combine to yield high interannual variability in the amount of forage available for the wildlife that the park is tasked to maintain. Finally, fire, which is now primarily controlled by WICA and NPS Northern Great Plains fire management programs, is intertwined with all other natural resource issues at WICA, as it can impact prairie dog colony and forest expansion, ungulate foraging behavior, invasive plant species, and hydrological processes.

Although not capable of capturing all of these complexities, dynamic vegetation models do provide a means for quantitatively projecting vegetation futures in future climates under plausible fire and grazing regimes. Our work uses the DGVM MC1 to simulate the effects of future climate projections and management practices on the vegetation of WICA. MC1 is designed to project potential vegetation as influenced by natural processes and hence is appropriate for national parks, where conservation of native biota and ecosystems is of great importance.

Since the initial application of MC1 to a small portion of WICA (Bachelet et al. 2000), the model has been altered to improve model performance with the inclusion of dynamic fire. Applying this improved version to WICA required substantial recalibration, during which we have made a number of improvements to MC1 that will be incorporated as permanent changes. In this report we document these changes and our calibration procedure following a brief overview of the model. We compare the projections of current vegetation to the current state of the park and present projections of vegetation dynamics under future climates downscaled from three GCMs selected to represent the existing range in available GCM projections. In doing so, we examine the consequences of different management options regarding fire and grazing, major aspects of biotic management at Wind Cave.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Title Vegetation projections for Wind Cave National Park with three future climate scenarios: Final report in completion of Task Agreement J8W07100052
Series title National Park Service Natural Resource Technical Report
Series number NPS/WICA/NRTRT--2013/681
Year Published 2013
Language English
Publisher National Park Service
Publisher location Fort Collins, CO
Contributing office(s) Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Description x, 58 p.
Country United States
State South Dakota
Other Geospatial Wind Cave National Park
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional metadata about this publication, not found in other parts of the page is in this table