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Wyoming ecology – Current updates renew UW professor’s publication in second edition

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Laramie – In 1994, University of Wyoming (UW) Professor Emeritus of Vegetation Ecology Dennis Knight published a book titled Mountains and Plains: The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes.

On Nov. 3, Knight discussed his second edition as the keynote speaker in Laramie at the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, Society for Range Management and Wyoming Weed and Pest Council joint convention.

“One of the first things I did when I came to Wyoming was look for a history book. I thought it would be good to know a little bit about the people and the industries in this state,” he remarked.

He also researched the geology of the state, but there were no comprehensive books to be found covering the topic of Wyoming’s ecology.

“If a history book is important for a state, then surely an ecology book is important to the state,” he continued.

Eventually, after working through a number of years and two sabbaticals, Knight published his ecology book.

Updated information

“Twenty years later, I began to wonder if that was going to be my last word on ecology of the Wyoming landscape, especially considering how much has changed,” he noted, deciding that it was time for a second edition of the book.

In 2014, the second edition of Mountains and Plains was published, complete with updates and online content.

“It’s now in full color. It has more pages and additional chapters, and I think it is a much nicer book,” he said.

Current ecological events are discussed in the new book, including endangered species issues such as sage grouse and wolves.

“In the first edition, I did not write about sage grouse as being a threatened or endangered species. To my knowledge, no one was talking about it. The wolf hadn’t even been reintroduced yet, and we know about all of the interesting controversy and ecological research that has been done in conjunction with the reintroduction of the wolf,” he explained.

Fragmentation of habitat has also been approached in a new light, more focused on sagebrush areas and grasslands, rather than the forests that were highlighted in the first edition.

Current issues

“Invasive species, of course, were considered in the first edition but not nearly to the extent that they are in the second edition. We tried to do more with that, as one of the most important aspects of global change anywhere on earth is the ecological effects of invasive species,” Knight stated.

Climate change is also a topic with increased emphasis in the new book.

“Now we know we have to pay attention to climate change when managing the ecosystems in the Rocky Mountain West, like anywhere else on earth,” he noted.

A new chapter has been added for wetlands, marshes and fens in the state, outlining various definitions of ecological landscapes and addressing those throughout Wyoming.

“Only about five percent of our wetlands are permanently flooded. About 60 percent of those wetlands are dry by mid-summer, and about 50 percent are sustained by irrigation,” Knight commented.

Ecological systems

Herbivores are also an important subject in Knight’s publication, and he makes a point to include biological elements found beneath the soil surface.

“Most of the biomass is below ground, so that is where we would expect most of the herbivores to be. Far more energy flows through mites, nematodes, amoeba, small burrowing animals and various other invertebrates such as insects that are feeding on those roots than flows through our large herbivores above ground, even on those grasslands that are quite heavily grazed,” he said.

No matter which species is being discussed, Knight also pointed out that an ecosystem is not a pinpoint on the landscape.

Referring to roads that cross Wyoming’s ecological landscapes, he mentioned, “Every road has a footprint that is half a mile to a mile wide, depending on what kind of organism we are talking about. The habitat is influenced far beyond where the road is.”

Impacts from diseases and invasive species are also widespread, and their patterns have changed in the 20 years since the publication of Knight’s original edition.

Other impacts

“White pine blister rust, for example, has become a much bigger problem in our white bark pine and limber pine forests,” he noted.

The disease has spread southward and effects many other elements of the ecological system. It kills white bark pine trees, an important food source for grizzly bears, and causes trees to be more susceptible to pine bark beetles due to a decreased production of tree sap.

“This is highly unfortunate because it is an invasive species that is greatly changing the nature of some of our ecosystems,” he claimed.

Knight also refers to new research illustrating the changes in climate that have occurred in Wyoming, both recently and over the long term.

“Climate change can be studied using pollen analysis. Pollen buried deeper in wetlands is older than pollen buried near the surface, and that pollen tends to persist for a very long time,” he remarked.

In one example, he describes a landscape that was primarily sagebrush before transitioning to a majority of pine approximately 20,000 years ago.

“Now we are at a stage that is more intermediate. This is just one way of studying climate change, and we know that this has occurred over a long period of time,” Knight explained.

He also emphasized the diversity of landscapes across the state and thanked the individuals and organizations that supported the efforts of the new edition of his book.

“This has been a team project. We have had great encouragement and support,” stated Knight.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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