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Whitebark Pine: An unlikely tree in the spotlight

Josh Mogerman

Posted September 24, 2009

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Dead whitebark pine in Wyoming via jmogs on Flickr

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 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, who could that be?

deadtrees_147 image by jmogs via Flickr


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Tommy HayesSep 24 2009 06:58 PM

I saw my first whitebark pine in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana several summers ago. It's plight could be a powerful and tangible emblem of the threats of a warming globe and compel people to really care. This tree honestly triggered my first concern, which has turned into action.

Josh MogermanSep 24 2009 07:07 PM

Tommy---thanks for the comment.

I think it is pretty hard to convey just how pervasive and massive the scale of damage in the region is... I took the photo above from a plane flying low in the Wind River region (those are the Tetons in the background) last year. I am told that things are even worse this year.

Whitebark are not particularly impressive to see in photos. Most are pretty scraggily...not giant at all. I have a couple shots of some centennials that look smaller than much younger oaks here in Chicago. But it is amazing to see where they have managed to survive and hold on.

And they are just so important now...their plight is climate change that we can see. In the Northern Rockies, you can't miss it.

And this is part of why I get so frustrated when I hear folks denying the impacts of climate change...sure, the beetles are native to this area---but never to these high elevations...its just been too cold until now.

I am glad to hear that you are taking action. That's what is needed right now. We can do something about this problem---but only if folks follow your lead!

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