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Grassland, Shrubland and Desert Ecosystems
Contact Information
  • Grassland, Shrubland and Desert Ecosystems
  • 333 Broadway SE. Suite 115
  • Albuquerque, NM 87102-3497
  • 505-724-3660
  • 505-724-3688 (fax)
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Vulnerability of Riparian Obligate Species in the Rio Grande

Project Title

Vulnerability of Riparian Obligate Species in the Rio Grande to the Interactive Effects of Fire, Hydrological Variation and Climate Change

View final report (pdf) »



The interaction of fire and climate change is predicted to have extreme effects for ecosystems in the interior western U.S. Climate will drive changes to river flows through modified precipitation regimes and higher temperatures that increase evapotranspiration rates (e.g. see Furniss et al. 2013). These changes will in turn increase the risk of severe fires within riparian woodland habitats, affecting species composition, function and structure. Resource managers need tools that identify the likely future of riparian habitats under various climate and fire scenarios, not only to focus limited resources on the most critical needs, but to identify opportunities for promoting natural regeneration of riparian woodland and wetland habitats. This project will create decision support tools to help outline critical intervention points for species conservation under changing climate. Our goal is to identify the conditions and locations where biodiversity will be most affected by future changes as well as which species are most likely to experience declining or enhanced populations as a result of those changes.


Boundaries of Rio Grande study site
Figure 1: Boundaries of Rio Grande study site - click to enlarge
Risk of the effects of climate change on the northern cardinal and mourning warbler
Friggens and Mathews 2012
Figure 2: Risk of the effects of climate change on the northern cardinal and mourning warbler, expressed as a combination of likelihood of habitat change (x-axis) and magnitude of adaptability (y-axis) - click to enlarge

The current project is using a coupled modeling approach that combines species distribution modeling (Iverson et al. 2011), fire behavior models (e.g. Finney et al., 2010), and vulnerability assessment methods (Bagne et al. 2011) to generate spatially explicit estimates of species vulnerability to the interactive effects of climate change and fire. This project is focused on habitats and animal species along the Rio Grande, NM (Figure 1).

The dominant vegetation along the Rio Grande transitions from mixed conifer woodlands to the north to open scrubland habitat in the south. The Bosque, or riparian forest, along the Rio Grande has high value for wildlife, but because of competing land and water use, is also vulnerable to degradation. The Rio Grande Bosque is comprised of mature cottonwood (Populus deltoids) forest, Willow (Salix nigra) stands, mixed stands, monotypic Salt cedar (Tamarix ramonssissima) stands, and wetlands/open water. Global climate predictions for the Southwest include higher temperatures, more variable rainfall, and more drought periods, which will exacerbate the present challenges of managing declining Bosque habitat (Christensen et al., 2007). In addition, human populations in the region are expected to grow considerably, putting more pressure on natural systems competing for resources. Recent efforts have provided data on future climate, hydrology and plant and animal responses (e.g. BOR 2011; Christensen et al., 2007; Refeldt et al. 2006; Friggens et al. 2013) that can be used to predict future outcomes.

Working with scientist in the Fire, Fuel and Smoke Program and the University of Wisconsin, we are quantifying the interactive effect of fire and climate change on the presence and long-term persistence of native and nonnative species residing within Rio Grande riparian and wetland habitats. Predictions for future species distributions will be coupled with scores representing species adaptive capacity to quantify vulnerability to changing climate and disturbance regimes (Figure 2). Data on future change in climate, habitat, and fire behavior and maps that identify areas with suitable habitat as defined by climate space, hydrological characteristics, and disturbance regime will be uploaded to this site as they become available.


Furniss, Michael J.; Roby, Ken B.; Cenderelli, Dan; Chatel, John; Clifton, Caty F.;Clingenpeel, Alan; Hays, Polly E.; Higgins, Dale; Hodges, Ken; Howe, Carol; Jungst, Laura; Louie, Joan; Mai, Christine; Martinez, Ralph; Overton, Kerry; Staab, Brian P.; Steinke, Rory; Weinhold, Mark. 2013. Assessing the vulnerability of watersheds to climate change: results of national forest watershed vulnerability pilot assessments. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-884. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 32 p. plus appendix.

Friggens, Megan M.; Matthews, Stephen N. 2012. Risk assessment for two bird species in northern Wisconsin. In: Vose, James M.; Peterson, David L.; Patel-Weynand, Toral. Effects of climatic variability and change on forest ecosystems: a comprehensive science synthesis for the U.S. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-870. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. p. 256-258.

Finney, Mark A.; McHugh, Charles W.; Grenfell, Isaac; Riley, Karin L. 2010. Continental-scale simulation of burn probabilities, flame lengths, and fire size distribution for the United States. In: Viegas, D. X., ed. Proceedings of the VI International Conference on Forest Fire Research; 15-18 November 2010; Coimbra, Portugal. Coimbra, Portugal: University of Coimbra. 12 p.

Bureau of Reclamation. 2011. West-wide climate risk assessments: bias-corrected and spatially downscaled surface water projections, prepared by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Technical Services Center, Denver Colorado, March 2011, 138 pp.

Bagne, Karen E.; Friggens, Megan M.; Finch, Deborah M. 2011. A System for Assessing Vulnerability of Species (SAVS) to Climate Change. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-257. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 28 p.

Christensen, J. R., et al. 2007: Regional climate Projections. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Quin, M. Manning, et al. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, NY, USA.

Friggens, Megan M.; Finch, Deborah M.; Bagne, Karen E.; Coe, Sharon J.; Hawksworth, David L. 2013. Vulnerability of species to climate change in the Southwest: terrestrial species of the Middle Rio Grande. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-306. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 191 p.

Iverson, Louis R.; Prasad, Anantha M.; Matthews, Stephen N.; Peters, Matthew P. 2011. Lessons learned while integrating habitat, dispersal, disturbance, and life-history traits into species habitat models under climate change. Ecosystems. 14: 1005-1020.

Rehfeldt, Gerald E.; Crookston, Nicholas L.; Warwell, Marcus V.; Evans, Jeffrey S. 2006. Empirical analyses of plant-climate relationships for the western United States. International Journal of Plant Sciences. 167(6): 1123-1150.

GSD Principal Investigators

Finch, Deborah    Program Manager and Supervisory Biologist    505-724-3671
Friggens, Megan MacKellar    Research Ecologist    505-724-3679

Cooperators and Sponsors

Southern Rockies Landscape Conservation Cooperative

Desert Landscape Conservation Cooperative

Related Links

Fire, Fuel and Smoke Program

Climate Atlas of the United States