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Louisa Willcox’s Blog

Are the Hills Alive?

Louisa Willcox

Posted November 2, 2009

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This article originally appeared as a guest editorial in the Jackson Hole News and Guide on Ocotober 28, 2009.

It's impossible to drive over Togwotee Pass or hike in the wilds of the Gros Ventres or Absarokas these days without seeing vast red, dying forests of pine trees — testimony to the rapid changes underway with rising temperatures.  Warmer winters mean that mountain pine beetles, which have coevolved for millennia with lower elevation lodgepole pine and other western forests, are now flourishing in high-elevation whitebark pine forests. 


Aerial view of Gros Ventres Range

Whitebark pine trees are critical to the ecological integrity of Yellowstone's high country.  By pioneering in harsh alpine soils, they serve as "nurse" trees, protecting other conifers and allowing them to grow.  With nutritious, high-fat seeds, they provide important food for many species of wildlife, including Clark's Nutcrackers, red squirrels and grizzly bears.  Their shade also slows the rate of snowmelt in the spring, helping maintain healthy fisheries and watersheds.

What is now happening to whitebark pine is shocking.  A massive outbreak of mountain pine beetle, combined with an introduced pathogen, white pine blister rust, is killing whitebark at an unprecedented rate in much of the tree's range.  Although there have been previous mountain pine beetle epidemics during warming periods in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, especially for a short time in the 1930s, nothing compares to the scale of what is happening right now in these forests.

The severity of the current whitebark pine crisis has prompted a new and unique collaboration during the past few years among agencies, citizen scientists and conservationists, including the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, EcoFlight (an environmental aviation organization), GIS consultants at Geo Graphics, and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  Collectively, we have spent countless hours in EcoFlight's plane and on foot, assessing the condition of whitebark pine.  This collaborative approach was critical, because the mountain pine beetle outbreak in the GYE is killing whitebark pine so quickly that no one, until now, had an accurate picture of what is dead or alive.  And nobody could take on this enormous task alone.

When we started thinking about this project, we were not sure one could assess mountain pine beetle damage in whitebark pine flying at 13,000 feet and 100 miles per hour.  But with a small amount of funding from NRDC, we launched an experimental project last year with retired U.S. Forest Service beetle expert Dr. Jesse Logan, pilot Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight, and Wally MacFarlane of Geo Graphics.  The results proved to be compelling and very accurate at a landscape scale. With the help and leadership of the U.S. Forest Service, this year we were able to build on the success of the experimental project, completing the first-ever ecosystem-wide aerial survey of the impact on whitebark from mountain pine beetle.

What we found, from the air and ground-truthing efforts on foot, is devastating.  While the final results are not yet in, it appears that only a relatively small portion of the GYE's whitebark pine remains healthy. Whitebark pine is predicted by some experts to be functionally extinct in the GYE in just 5-7 years.  The consequences of the massive loss of whitebark pine will have repercussions throughout the entire ecosystem -- for people, wildlife and watersheds -- for many, many years.

What is happening to whitebark pine in Yellowstone country is yet another compelling argument that we all need to redouble efforts to turn down the thermostat — fast.

Despite the ongoing tragedy with whitebark pine in and around our country's first national park, working collaboratively with agencies, citizen scientists and individuals who share a common vision and concern about the future of whitebark and the health of the GYE has been heartening.  We give special thanks to the U.S. Forest Service for providing necessary funds, and to the family of "whitebark warriors" who did the work.

This successful collaboration can also serve as a model for how to pursue conservation in other areas in increasingly challenging times: by working together, we can accomplish what none of us can do alone.  And in this collaborative way, we will be better equipped to build a broad-based constituency that might just be strong enough to protect and restore what remains of whitebark forests -- and the awe-inspiring Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem which we so cherish.

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