Phenology studies under way at Independence Pass—by Emily Downing

Snowmelt, sunshine, and mineral dust are the key components of Independence Pass’s beautiful alpine flowers. There’s a changing ingredient in this recipe, though, and it’s that ingredient that is the focus of one of the Independence Pass Foundation’s (IPF) summer studies. Time is also important in high alpine flower growth: cataloging when flowers bloom and how long they bloom for is just as important to document as the types of flowers that color the mountain sides in the summer.


Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycle events in relation to season and climate. Studying the timing of plant growth, especially in a place like the high alpine where there’s a short seasonal window for that growth, can reveal quite a bit about the relationship between Earth’s climate and the biosphere. Gothic’s Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) has been recording the phenology of the alpine plants on the south side of the Elk Mountains since the 1970’s. In doing so, scientists have discovered much about the effects of a changing climate on high mountain ecosystems.


This is the third  summer in which IPF has carried out phenology studies to look at what the plants are doing on the northeast side of the Elk Mountains. In 2017, Executive Director Karin Teague and local ecologist Dawn Barton established four plots in the Lower Lost Man drainage and four plots in the Upper Lost Man drainage to record flower species and when they begin to bloom. After receiving some valuable feedback from RMBL biologist Dr. David Inouye, this year’s study adjusted plot locations to optimize data collection. Now, eight plots in the Upper Lost Man drainage and on top of the Pass are allowing IPF to look at when flowers are blooming and for how long. Plots are varied in type to represent different alpine ecosystems, from open meadow to rock garden to wetland.

We visit each of the eight plots two times every week. Plant species that are in bloom are identified, counted, and recorded. Plants that have buds that are not yet open are not counted, as we want to ensure we are counting only the species that are “open for business,” or able to be visited by pollinators. For instance, if there are three mountain bluebells in the plot but the buds of one are still closed tightly, we’d only record two of the Mertensia lanceolata. We are also pairing this data with weather data from the Aspen Global Change Institute’s Interactive Roaring Fork Observation Network (iRON) station on the Pass.


The heavy snow load this winter meant our high-elevation (all above 11,000 feet) plots took longer to melt out this summer. As a result, we were unable to record the season’s first blooms until the first week of July. Since then, however, the flowers seem like they are trying to make up for lost time. High temperatures have sent the summer into full swing on Independence Pass, and monitoring our plots is soon going to mean identifying many different species in each one.