Determining ecological indicators in the Cordillera Blanca Region, Peru

Gillian Bowser
Jul 13, 2013

The cow stood blinking down at us with an expression of mild interest as we clambered up an impossibly steep slope to reach a small wetland tucked beneath the chin of a towering 6500m peak of the Cordillera Blanca range in the Peruvian Andes.  The small wetland or bofedales was created by retreating glaciers, and these meadows are temporary ecological hotspots that may link to the large questions of climate change adaptation and resilience for the dependent Andean human communities.  Determining ecological indicators in mountain environments using a systems approach with multidisciplinary research teams is critical. Resilience frameworks include coupling human livelihood (cattle in this case), with ecological parameters (bofedales).  Such coupled systems in high alpine systems are linked with climate change through the process of glacial retreat. The local communities are dependent on the resources created by glaciers and yet glacial retreat is a complicated process with both benefits and detriments.  The watching cow is the target of our inquiry and embodies a potential paradox for high alpine human communities. The cow in question is looking down at us from a high cliff at 4300 meters above sea level and this cow and its allies use extreme alpine environments, herded by local human communities up and down mountain valleys.  Cows, alpaca, horses and burros have long been a part of the fabric of society here and these animals survive in high alpine, low nutrient meadows that are dependent on glacial melt waters. These waters are changing and shifting with climate change as the glacial fields retreat to high hanging cliffs and broken talus fields. The paradox is the retreating glaciers also create new wet meadows that are nutrient rich and in these high meadows, we find groups of animals thousands of meters above the valley floor.

Ecological indicators are a fairly new concept supported by IUCN as a way to broaden awareness of ecological change for human communities.  As changes to ecosystem services such as water shift, community livelihood for subsistence and pastoral communities can be both threatened or enhanced.  An ecological indicator is a way of creating community resilience using a visible organism or system that can be monitored for change.  In the high Andean mountains, bofedales are small wet meadows that are temporal and yet critical indicators of change.  As glacial retreat creates small pocket meadows, the nutrient capacity may be higher than the lower heavily grazed valleys, yet these meadows may also vanish as the glacier retreats further and water levels decline.  Measuring such changes through a lens of social systems coupled with ecological parameters requires multidisciplinary team research and an international team of climate modelers working with on-the-ground ecologists to identify indicators that can be monitored over time while also being visible and accessible to local community members.  Such coupling of science to local community livelihood is critical for resilience to shifting ecosystem services.

The cow watches as we collect plant specimens, document positions of animals and the wetland they are using.  Above our heads, a stream dashing over the edge of a cliff forms a beautiful cascade of falling water, icy blue with glacial silt.  Pastoral community use of high alpine areas is threatened and enhanced as new meadows appear and dry out with differing nutrient values for stock.  As we explore what parameters may best help us measure changes in these extreme environment, the watching livestock with a background of some of the highest peaks on the South American Continent remind us of the importance of connecting community livelihood with ecological indicators that have clear and immediate benefits for all.

Gillian Bowser

Gillian Bowser, PhD. is a former AAAS Science and Diplomacy Fellow at U.S. Department of State, Office of Marine Conservation.  Currently Dr. Bowser is with Colorado State University working on ecosystem indicators and sustainability issues and teaches in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.  On the side, she is a member of the Womens Major Group to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and to the Commission on the Status of Women. One of her passions is engaging underrepresented minority students in science and sustainability using citizen science.

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