© Mike Norton (Colorado)

Alpine Tundra

This system occupies the highest elevation band, normally above 11,000 feet, although elevational limits vary depending on latitude and aspect.  The characteristic long winters, high snowfall, high winds, and short summers, constitutes too harsh a climate for permanent human habitation.  Most of Colorado’s designated Wilderness Areas are in the alpine “rock and ice” zone.  Characteristic animals include the pika, marmot, rosy finch, and ptarmagin.  All of these species have adapted to cold climates with harsh conditions, and are active in the alpine year-round.  The vegetation is characteristically short and adapted for a short summer season where freezing temperatures can occur at anytime.  Around mid July, the wildflowers produce a dazzling display of colors and shapes with a backdrop of snow-covered peaks that captures the attention of many tourists and recreationists.  Most of Colorado’s premier downhill ski areas provide easy access to winter alpine skiing, and this multi-million dollar industry takes yearly advantage of an extremely harsh climate.

Rarity in the alpine

One of the world’s rarest butterflies, the Uncompaghre fritillary, lives amongst the dwarf willows at altitudes above 13,000 feet and is found on just a few of Colorado’s high peaks.  Nine rare and Colorado-endemic plants are found only in the alpine zone and generally occupy very few acres.  Historically, wolverines spent most of their time in the alpine zone and adjacent boreal forests, but today Colorado no longer has any known occurrences of wolverines. 


Most of the alpine is federally owned (primarily by the U.S. Forest Service, followed by Bureau of Land Management) and much of it is in wilderness status.  Old privately-owned mining claims are scattered throughout, but there are very few active mines operating today.  In general, alpine tundra in Colorado is in excellent condition and highly protected.  The primary threat to this system is global climate change, which could have significant impacts on this system in the future.  Impacts from recreation are a distant second.  The Colorado Natural Heritage Program and The Nature Conservancy consider the alpine tundra ecosystem to be relatively well conserved.  To access Colorado's Biodiversity Scorecard click here.

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