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Grand Teton wildflowers are blooming earlier in season thanks to warmer springs, earlier snowmelt

Flowers and Tetons(1) Trevor Bloom.jpg
Trevor Bloom
The Nature Conservancy
Flowering plants in Grant Teton National Park are blooming on average 17 days earlier than they did decades ago.

In the 1970s and 80s famed naturalist Frank Craighead gathered hundreds of observations of first flowering dates in Grand Teton National park.

Decades later, scientist Corinna Riginos retrieved Craighead’s handwritten notes from his old cabin near Moose, Wyoming. She and her colleagues at the Nature Conservancy revisited the same trails Craighead explored to gather modern data and compare flowering times of around 50 different species — and the group noticed something.

“Flowering plants that come up early in the spring and very, very beginning of summer were blooming on average 17 days earlier now than in the 1970s,” Riginos said, adding that some species bloomed 36 days earlier.

Riginos says the changes correlate with warmer springs and earlier snow melts. In 2016-19 when data for the TNC study was gathered, snow melted on average 21 days earlier than it did when Craighead was gathering his research in the 1970s.

The changes could impact an imperiled bird species.

Sage-grouse are known to eat some wildflowers in the spring during their nesting season. Riginos says less available food sources at this critical time raises some concerns.

“Sagebrush restoration often doesn’t often put a lot of focus on these flowering plants, [it] puts a lot of focus on grasses and sagebrush," she said, "but what we’re saying is that these are important and we need to maintain them in the system because they may be at risk."

The Nature Conservancy is asking visitors to Grant Teton National Park to help gather more data on trails as part of the organization's Wildflower Watch group to continue researching how climate change is impacting plants and wildlife.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.