Pine squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) proliferate in the conifer forest and are frequent visitors to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. A single squirrel may harvest up to 16,000 cones per year, storing them in piles—called middens—beneath conifer trees.

Covering just 15 percent of the Earth’s land surface, the alpine environment is defined both by the climate that creates it and the unique species it harbors. As the global climate warms and changes, the habitats sustained in the past are also changing.

Treeline, the edge of habitat above which trees cannot grow, is the lower boundary of the alpine. Warming temperatures and dwindling snowpacks are pushing trees to higher elevations, transforming previously open, high alpine meadows into forests. Shrinking glaciers may open new land for colonization by alpine species, but losing the water that glaciers provide could slow the process of succession that creates additional alpine meadows.

The future, it seems, is uncertain for alpine plant species, treasured by botanists and nature lovers and crucial to ptarmigan, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, rosy finches, and flightless grasshoppers.

—Excerpted from an essay by David Inouye, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park’s Department of Biology, in the recently released On the Roof of the Rocky Mountains: The Legacy of Betty Ford Alpine Gardens

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