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Louisa Willcox’s Blog

The Siege of Beetles

Louisa Willcox

Posted July 10, 2009

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The beetle attack of whitebark pine I saw near Yellowstone National Park in Tom Miner Basin last week was worse than it was when I was here a year ago.  Even just two years ago, you would find a pocket, here and there, of beetle-killed whitebark, as well as brown-flagged blister-rust infected trees.  The signs were somewhat subtle.  Not so anymore.  Last week, from the vantage point of Packsaddle Peak, we could see that in a couple of short years, the red spots of beetle-killed whitebark pine had grown, and they were coalescing into a red cancerous expanse of dying forests. 

This was the first day of training for our Greater Yellowstone Whitebark Assessment Project, a collaborative effort with the U.S. Forest Service.  We were working with GPS units, new cameras, and Dr. Jesse Logan's classification scheme to evaluate mountain pine beetle damage in whitebark.  (We were looking mostly at "category 3s"; category 0 is no damage and category 5 is all dead.)  For the next number of weeks, we will be working with Wally MacFarlane, Dena Adler, Colin Peacock, Willie Kern, Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon, and others with the Forest Service to survey the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) for beetle damage in whitebark. 


(The Team investigating a beetle-infected tree.)

Because of warming temperatures, the outbreak of mountain pine beetle is escalating, threatening the future of the whitebark ecosystem.  And no one knows how bad the problem is because the epidemic is moving so fast, outstripping historical Forest Service methods for detecting the damage.  So, working with the Forest Service, we are pursuing an unprecedented aerial survey of the entire GYE.  Given the enormous significance of whitebark to the future of Greater Yellowstone's grizzlies, Clark's nutcrackers, elk, and a host of other species large and small, knowing the truth about what is happening to whitebark is critical-as upsetting as that truth may be.

Sitting on top of Packsaddle, we could look south into Yellowstone Park, west toward the Madisons, north to the Crazies, and east to the North Absarokas.  In each direction (where the light was good) we could see red, and in some places grey, indicating trees that had been killed in previous years.

By the looks of it, our research crew is somewhat motley, but they are dedicated, talented, and up to the job.  Dr. Jesse Logan, retired Forest Service entomologist, perhaps the leading mind on the subject of mountain pine beetles and whitebark pine ecology, looks anything but retired as he agilely navigated along the ridge of Packsaddle up toward the peak.  Wally MacFarlane, the anchor of the project and a veteran wilderness adventurer and landscape analyst, is one of the strongest guys in the mountains that I've ever met-along with being a preeminent gear head who patiently demonstrated to Luddites like me the details of the GPS and camera equipment.  Needless to say, our two interns, Dena Adler, a sophomore at Brown, and Colin Peacock, son of author and grizzly expert Doug Peacock, picked up on the equipment a lot faster than yours truly.  There's Willie Kern, too, a recent recruit, a wilderness gypsy with enormous experience in field work and data collection in far-off places like Tibet and China. 


(The Team from left to right:  Colin Peacock, Dena Adler, NRDC's Matt Skoglund, Wally Macfarlane, Dr. Jesse Logan, and Willie Kern)

In a couple of days, we will join Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon, who will be doing all of the flying for this great project.  For going on 15 years, I have worked with Bruce, a dedicated conservationist and skilled pilot, on an assortment of campaigns, from logging to mining to evaluating the corridors between Yellowstone and other Northern Rockies ecosystems.  We may look like a rag-tag bunch, but this is the team that will get things done this summer!

From our vantage point on Packsaddle Peak, Jesse saw something strange: a light yellow tinge to seemingly healthy whitebark pine, in a stand a half mile away.  When we walked down to it and looked up from underneath the trees that still looked green, we could see that the trunks were covered with beetle bore holes.  Standing dead.  NRDC's Matt Skoglund had joined us for the day, and, with the intensity of a beaver, he debarked part of one of the dead trees with one of Jesse's hatchets, exposing scores of beetles-adult and larvae.  This means that whitebark are getting hit early with emerging adults as well as later when the larvae mature into adults.  A double-whammy.  A cool, wet spring may have slowed the beetles, but they haven't stopped their death march.

Thankfully, there were still some healthy whitebark.  This meant noisy nutcrackers, which sound, together, like a family argument.  (By caching whitebark seeds, nutcrackers are very important to the reproduction of whitebark pine.)  We could hear squirrels chattering, too, irritated at our presence.  Squirrels do grizzlies the favor of taking the cones down from the tops of the trees and caching them, making it easier for grizzly bears to forage on their high fat seeds.  We could see old bear scats, too, filled with the husks of whitebark pine seeds.

At the end of the day, as I descended Packsaddle with my friends and comrades in the evening sun, surrounded by blue columbine, red paintbrush, and yellows arnica, through a mosaic of open meadows and forests, the beauty of the glorious Gallatin Range was astonishing.  Yet, notwithstanding such beauty, based upon what I saw earlier in the day, I found myself wondering:  How long will it last?  How long will it be until the nutcrackers leave, and with them, any hope of regeneration of whitebark?  How long will it be before grizzly bear numbers decline to dangerously low levels?  How long ultimately will it be until we do what we must for the whitebark pine ecosystem and the rest of the planet:  turn down the thermostat?

packsaddle peak

(Packsaddle Peak (left))

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