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Western Geographic Science Center


Effects of Climate Change, Glacial Retreat, and Loss of Snowfield on Habitat Conditions and Wild Sheep Populations in Polar and High Mountain Ecosystems in Alaska, Far Eastern Russia, and Central Asia: A Comparative Study

Image of Dall sheep

It is critical that science-based management plans be developed to provide sustainable populations of wild sheep and goats. Several Asian Argali’s are listed as threatened or endangered, requiring long-term effective management. Wild sheep in particular are sensitive to change and very well could be considered an indicator species regarding the effects of climate change in arctic and high mountain ecosystems. Wild sheep and goats are extremely important to the economies of various central-Asian countries, in that considerable revenue is generated from hunting activities. In Asia and Russia, these revenues are specifically re-invested in the overall management of wild sheep and goats. In Alaska, revenues generated through wild sheep hunting provide significant funding for wildlife management by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. This project involves interdisciplinary work and collaboration between biologists, glaciologists, geographers and remote sensing scientists, and researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and several universities and NGO’s.


The objectives of this research are to understand, analyze, quantify, and document the impact of glacial retreat and snowfield loss on wild sheep populations and their distribution, develop/utilize models to predict future impacts, and produce a set of management tools to be used in the development of sustainable habitat and wildlife management plans. This study will focus on phenological changes to the landscape and habitat along glacial and snowfield margins, and how these changes are affecting the preferred habitat of wild sheep and goats in the study areas. Predictive models will be developed, based on current and historic data and field observations, to forecast future changes and patterns over the next 25 years. Analyses will be performed on the environmental, social, and economic consequences of continued glacial retreat in the study areas and affects on wild sheep and goats. The project team will work closely with host states/countries to integrate study results into the landscape and wildlife management plans of Alaska and selected collaborating international countries such as Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, and Pakistan

Strategy and Approach:

This study takes a detailed multi-decade look at glacial retreat and loss of permanent snowfields and the resulting land-cover and land-use changes in the Alaska Range and Wrangell Mountains of Alaska and selected mountain ranges in far-eastern Russia and Central Asia. A variety of remotely sensed satellite data, ground-based observations, and historical databases serve as the primary sources of information to derive glacial extent. Data in the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS) database are used to identify past changes in glacial margins and extent of permanent snowfields. Ancillary data, such as historical aerial photography, topographic maps, and historical reports are used for additional interpretation. A literature search is being used to identify pre-1900 historical maps of the study areas; these maps will be used to help identify glacial margins and snowfield extent prior to availability of remotely sensed data and integrated into the baseline dataset. Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) data will be used in the study to analyze phenological change at a high temporal resolution. Current and historical animal location data (radio-collar and visual observations) will be coupled with information derived from satellite and other datasets to construct models of habitat preference and change by applying various classification and statistical methods. We will investigate the possible development of models to predict future phenological and habitat change, with the goal of developing a set of tools that can be utilized in other ecoregions.

Landsat TM Satellite image of Altai Mountains in Central Asia (August 11, 1998) Landsat TM Satellite image of Altai Mountains in Central Asia (August 11, 1998)


This project involves collaboration with New Mexico State University, White Mountain Research Station at University of California, San Diego, University of Alaska, Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, and the International Sheep Hunters Association.

For more information contact: Photo of Ed
Ed Pfeifer


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