I just returned from two weeks in the Peruvian Andes conducting fieldwork on high elevation wetlands and how they were responding to impacts from livestock grazing in a changing climate. We were in the Huascaran National Park, the highest part of the Andes with many peaks soaring above 20,000 feet.
Our Colorado State U. group was joined by students and faculty from 4 other campuses and the international Mountain Institute. These wetlands, or bofedales in Peruvian jargon, are essential in providing quality water for the thousands who reside below.
Having spent many forays into our magnificent High Uintah Mountains, I found myself reflecting on ecological and cultural parallels. Although our highest Kings peak at 13,528 feet was far below Mount Huascaran’s 22,205-foot elevation, its bold loftiness provides a similar experience as would standing on the Huascaran’s summit. A departure results from the highly glaciated Huascaran. Our Uintahs lost their glaciers around 8000 years ago from a warming climate. Unfortunately, Huascaran’s glaciers are following suit having lost nearly 30% over the past three decades. These changes were being compounded by poorly managed hordes of livestock which had overgrazed much of the landscape.
Our primary focus was on changing vegetation, invertebrate populations, and water quality. At the peak of Peru’s dry, winter season, I wasn’t expecting to see much in bloom. To my delight, I recorded nearly 30 species of flowers in both woody and herbaceous form. Tomorrow I will be leading a nature hike in the wetlands and uplands of Tony Grove Lake here in our Bear River Range where I expect a like number in bloom combined with a plethora of butterflies and birds.
Although virtually all of the Andean flowers were new to me, there were similar families and genera. Of special note was a shrubby form of lupine growing to 5 feet, and another, exquisite columnar form approaching 6 feet found only in this national park. “Taulli Macho” is the local name for this splendid plant. “Macho” is a great descriptor!
Birds and butterflies were no less baffling. All were new to my life list- Pona ibis, Andean Condors, giant coot, tufted duck, Andean flicker, giant hummingbird, on and on. Senses overwhelmed. I missed the familiar sights and songs from our mountain birds- Clark’s nutcrackers, Steller jays, Cassin’s finch, pine siskins, violet-green swallows, mountain bluebirds to name a few.
I did a bit of research on our High Uintahs and found some parallels related to climate change and livestock management. Although not as profound as calving glaciers in the Andes, or hordes of free-ranging livestock, a continued loss of our snowpack and resulting changes in hydrology compounded by certain livestock grazing practices are under close scrutiny by agencies and others. A recent publication “Assessment of Watershed Vulnerability to Climate Change for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache and Ashley National Forests, Utah” published by the United States Department of Agriculture has much to offer.