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Mountains: The High Elevation Biome
Mountains are a common sight on this planet. They make up one-fifth of the world's landscape, and provide homes to at least one-tenth of the world's people. Furthermore, 2 billion people depend on mountain ecosystems for most of their food, hydroelectricity, timber, and minerals. About 80 per cent of our planet's fresh water originates in the mountains. Since about half of the world's people are reliant upon mountains for fresh water, and in this time of increasing water scarcity, it is becoming increasingly important to protect the mountain biome.
All mountain ecosystems have one major characteristic in common--rapid changes in altitude, climate, soil, and vegetation over very short distances. Mountain ecosystems sport a high range of biodiversity, and are also a home to many of our planet's ethnic minorities. These cultures are sometimes 'protected' due to the challenging environment to produce a living, but others are not. More and more these indigenous people are being kicked out of their homes due to population and commercial growth, logging, and mining. An example of the mountain's wide variety of organisms can be seen in California's Sierra Nevada range (the home of Yosemite, which is pictured above, far left). It has been estimated that this range alone houses 10,000 to 15,000 DIFFERENT species of plants and animals! This is all mainly due to elevation changes, which produces belts, or zones, of differing climates, soils, and plant life.
Rainfall varies greatly across the world's montane (mountain) biomes, ranging from very wet to very dry. However in all the biomes comes swift weather changes. For example, in just a few minutes a thunder storm can roll in when the sky was perfectly clear, and in just a few hours the temperatures can drop from extremely hot temperatures to temperatures that are below freezing.
The world's mountains provide a home to several thousand different ethnic groups. The mountain people, which mainly consist of indigenous people, ethnic minorities, and refugees, have been able to cope with this harsh environment of the mountain ecosystem. They live as nomads, hunters, foragers, traders, small farmers, loggers, and miners, etc. Most mountain people all share one attribute -- material poverty. However, what they lack in material wealth they make up in community life. They have been able to live off the land without widespread destruction and deforestation. Plant and animal species have been preserved by these people. For instance, in India's Garhwal Himalaya, local women were recently successful in identifying over 145 species of plants that had been destroyed by commercial logging and limestone mining; the national foresters could only list 25! Unfortunately, these cultures have been subjected to discrimination and other violations of human rights. They have been called degrading words such as 'hillbillies' (United States), 'oberwalder' (Austria), 'kohestani' (Afghanistan), and 'bhotias' (India). We need to learn not only how to preserve the biological diversity in the mountains, but the cultural diversity also.
The Himalayan Yew, a slow-growing conifer, is currently on the World Wildlife Fund's list of the ten most endangered animals. This plant can be found throughout Bhutan, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Burma, and maybe China. Taxol, which is promising to be a drug which can help cure cancer, is present in both the Pacific and Himalayan varieties. Found in the world's highest mountain range, the Himalayan Yew is extremely rare because of heavy deforestation and harvesting for Taxol extraction, without replanting. About 10 kilograms of yew leaves, bark, and needles will only produce one gram of the drug! New controls need to be imposed on this plant to make sure it is replanted and our supply remains sustainable, otherwise a valuable resource, and possible cure for cancer, may be lost!
Commercial industries, especially large mines and hydropower projects, cause exceptional damage in mountains. This is because many companies are ignorant of the fragility of the ecosystems and rights of local communities. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) discovered that during the past decade, tropical mountain forests have had both the fastest rates of both annual population growth and deforestation. Somehow, we need to come up with a way to find a compromise between preserving the cultural and biological diversity in mountains, and using them as a valuable resource. After all, if the mountains are exploited until they run dry, there will be no more resources for future generations. Currently, only 8 per cent of all mountains are protected in some form. If our world's highest mountains are able to inspire the greatest of mountain climbers to accomplish great feats, we should provide no lesser commitment to preserving the fragile ecosystems and endangered cultures which lie within them.
In Glacier National Park, near Logan's Pass (pictured
above, middle), there are many Rocky Mountain goats who don't make their
home in their natural ecosystem, but lounge around the parking lot.
They enjoy licking the anti-freeze from cars, because they like the salt!
Here are a few photographs of these goats in their natural and human-impacted