Whitebark Pine: An unlikely tree in the spotlight
Posted September 24, 2009 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places
Last year I had a chance to wander into the Wind River region of Wyoming with journalists, academics, and NRDC experts interested in getting to the bottom of the climate catastrophe that is unfolding in the region's whitebark pine tree forests.
For a city kid like me, the area is thoroughly, mind-numbingly gorgeous.
But perhaps not for long.
What we saw was also harrowing...a real life climate disaster in progress...with tree after tree succumbing to a mountain pine beetle invasion opened up as the high elevation forests are warming more quickly than most areas of the country. Sadly, despite our best efforts, until this is a disaster that most Americans are wholly unaware of...
But now two events in recent weeks will help more people to see what we saw in Wyoming. The whitebark pine tree is going to be in the spotlight.
Next week Ken Burns' newest documentary series on America's National Parks will run on PBS. And Yellowstone National Park---our first national park and arguably still our crown jewel---will be front and center. It is an ecosystem built upon and anchored by the whitebark pine.
And, unrelated, this week a federal judge put Yellowstone's grizzly bears back on the federal Endangered Species list. One of the main reasons cited in the decision was the plight of whitebark pine. You see, the pine nuts that the tree creates are like grizzly Haagen-Dazs---high in fat and protein and essential for momma bears in the fall when there is nothing of similar nutritional value on the landscape. There are clear correlations between birth rates for bears in the region with the whitebark pine cone crops---the more there are, the more likely that moms can squeeze out multiple surviving cubs. And there is an inverse proportion between human-bear conflicts and cone production---when there aren't a lot of cones, the bears are forced to head to lower elevations to find food near human communities. Less food means fewer cubs and more conflicts with people. That spells trouble for the bears as a recent census of whitebark pine trees in the regions shows that in some areas more than 70% of them are gone. And it shows the clear wisdom in the federal court decision---clearly, these magnificent critters need help.
And there's a third thing coming up---us.
NRDC has been focused on this issue for some time. We've petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to add the tree to the federal Endangered Species list. And, in partnership with the US Forest Service, we've coordinated an innovative research project to map the whitebark pine die-offs throughout the entire Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. It involved flying over and mapping damage to the entire 20 million acres of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. And while the data is still being crunched, as noted above, initial indications are not happy-making.
Whitebark pines create the conditions necessary for the other plants and animals to thrive in the area. And in the discussions about climate change, energy legislation, global warming denial, and Copenhagen we should remember what is going on in Yellowstone. It is a climate change horror story---a natural wonder that we might already be a victim of climate change. Oh there's hope---if we take action in the region and globally, I am confident we can stave off disaster...but tick tock. As the west heats up a fragile balance that has existed for millennia is quickly falling apart. Those changes are noticeable at higher elevations where small changes have huge impacts. And as a foundational species, Whitebark pine are likely heralds of problems we will see throughout the U.S. The trees are being assaulted by mountain pine beetles which are able to move into higher elevations and attack in greater numbers due to milder winters that no longer kill off their larvae. This threat is exacerbated by the increasing rate of infection by a non-native pathogen, white pine blister rust. The trees have no defense for the invaders and are now in danger of being functionally eliminated in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the next 10 years.
Which is why we will be focusing on the issue strongly next week.
Check back to NRDC.org for a deep investigation of the issue with NRDC experts, the top academics working in the field, and even a celebrity documentarian focused on national parks...now, who could that be?
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