Climate change is anticipated to alter plant species distributions. Regional context, notably the spatial complexity of climatic gradients, may influence species migration potential. While high-elevation species may benefit from steep climate gradients in mountain regions, their persistence may be threatened by limited suitable habitat as land area decreases with elevation. To untangle these apparently contradictory predictions for mountainous regions, we evaluated the climatic suitability of four coniferous forest tree species of the western United States based on species distribution modeling (SDM) and examined changes in climatically suitable areas under predicted climate change. We used forest structural information relating to tree species dominance, productivity, and demography from an extensive forest inventory system to assess the strength of inferences made with a SDM approach. We found that tree species dominance, productivity, and recruitment were highest where climatic suitability (i.e., probability of species occurrence under certain climate conditions) was high, supporting the use of predicted climatic suitability in examining species risk to climate change. By predicting changes in climatic suitability over the next century, we found that climatic suitability will likely decline, both in areas currently occupied by each tree species and in nearby unoccupied areas to which species might migrate in the future. These trends were most dramatic for high elevation species. Climatic changes predicted over the next century will dramatically reduce climatically suitable areas for high-elevation tree species while a lower elevation species, Pinus ponderosa, will be well positioned to shift upslope across the region. Reductions in suitable area for high-elevation species imply that even unlimited migration would be insufficient to offset predicted habitat loss, underscoring the vulnerability of these high-elevation species to climatic changes.
Additional publication details
Mountain landscapes offer few opportunities for high-elevation tree species migration