Water is the ecological currency of the West. Water limits the productivity of croplands, grassland and forests, creates habitat for commercial and recreational fisheries, controls wildfire, insect and disease outbreaks, and provides energy directly for hydropower or indirectly in oil and gas extraction.

The past 50 years have seen changes in stream and river flows across the Upper Missouri River Basin and within watersheds in Montana resulting from changes in land use, water management and climate raising concerns on how water can be managed in the 21st century. 

In collaboration with scientists at Montana State University, University of Montana, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Wildlife Conservation Society, the challenge of understanding water in the West will be addressed with a new ecosystem modeling approach.

A detailed ecosystem model, representing carbon and water fluxes through soils and vegetation, and vegetation responses to climate, disturbance and competition, will be coupled with a network of streams, so that feedbacks between changes in upland controls on water are connected with stream flow. Because the modeling approach couples processes on land with flows of water in streams, the effects of land and water management can be evaluated in the context of long-term effects on stream flow and on effects to hydrologic resiliency to climate change.

Additionally, variables related to stream dynamics, including discharge and its seasonal cycle, will be used as inputs to predict changes in fish habitat suitability. This extensive evaluation of a coupled ecosystem and hydrologic model will provide a basis for longer-term research evaluating climate and human impacts using integrated modeling tools.

To learn more about Dr. Poulter's innovative ecological research, we recommend watching his Montana Institute on Ecosystems-sponsored video seminar: "Interdisciplinary Applications of Global Terrestrial Carbon Cycle Models."