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Matt Skoglund’s Blog

What Does Climate Change in Yellowstone Look Like? (Photo Essay)

Matt Skoglund

Posted November 2, 2010

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I recently flew over a chunk of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in a small helicopter.  It was a wild, stunning, heartbreaking flight. 

I had a golden eagle’s view of the dead and dying whitebark pine forests in the Greater Yellowstone.  To see the devastation of high-elevation forest after high-elevation forest was disturbing, especially because we’re to blame, as the true killer of these magnificent trees is climate change. 

With warmer winter temperatures, mountain pine beetles are surviving at higher elevations because the requisite prolonged cold snaps needed to kill the beetles are not happening.  And the beetles are feasting on – and decimating – whitebark pine trees.

A non-native fungus, white pine blister rust, is also wreaking havoc on whitebark.

Whitebark pines are the bad asses of the sub-alpine plant community.  They eke out a living in a harsh, windy, cold, relentless landscape.  They’re a foundation species, as they’re often the first tree to inhabit an area after a forest disturbance.  They’re also a nurse tree, as their pioneering of a new area allows other trees to then take root there.  And they’re a keystone species, as they significantly affect the entire ecosystem.  Whitebark pines stabilize the soil, shade snowpack into the summer (which helps provide desperately needed water late in the summer when our streams and rivers need it most), and their nutritious seeds are a critical food source for Clark’s nutcracker birds, red squirrels, and grizzly bears.

In fact, the loss of whitebark pine seeds as a food source for Yellowstone grizzlies will be calamitous for the iconic bears.  Without whitebark pine seeds, the bears won’t be trekking through the high country to gorge on whitebark seeds in the late summer and fall.  Instead, they’ll be forced to search for replacement foods at lower elevations, where they’re more likely to bump into us – and thus more likely to get killed.

NRDC submitted a petition in December 2008 to list whitebark pine as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.  In July of this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service made an initial finding that endangered species protection for whitebark pine “may be warranted.”  The Service is now engaged in a more thorough review. 

As my helicopter flight vividly showed me, whitebark pine is in serious trouble.  Endangered Species Act protection – and the funding, research, and critical habitat designations that accompany it – are desperately needed. 

See for yourself.


(A dead whitebark forest in the Gallatin Mountains in Montana.  Whitebark turn red when dying and gray when dead.  Most of the green trees are spruce, lodgepole pine, or fir.)



(This is the Northern Rockies, not New England.  These are not deciduous trees that turn red, orange, and yellow in the fall.  All of these trees should be green -- hence the reason we call them "evergreens," as Aldo Leopold pointed out.)



(Whitebark pines are shaped like ice cream cones with broad canopies, while lodgepole, spruce, and fir look more like asparagus spears or traditional christmas trees.) 



(Dead and dying whitebark pines.)



(More of the same.)



(Electric Peak in Yellowstone National Park.  Note the nuked (gray) whitebark forest at the base of the mountain.) 



(Improvised helipad in the Gallatin Canyon.  Coolest.  Lunch stop.  Ever.  (Sorry -- I had to include this one.)) 



(More nuked whitebark.) 



 (An eerie photo of dead whitebark pines.)



(An unfortunate mosaic of red and gray.) 



 (Dead whitebark now inhabit this basin.  What will that mean for grizzlies, Clark's nutcrackers, and red squirrels?  What about snowpack?)



(Look in the lower right corner of the picture.  That's a mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) high in the Madison Mountains in Montana.  You don't see them every day.)



(What more can I write?  Endangered Species Act protection is needed for whitebark pine.  Now.)

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Pelle EklundNov 2 2010 05:20 PM


Excellent post as usual. Really do look forward to your regular posts and perspective.

Keep em coming.

Philadelphia, PA

Wally MacfarlaneNov 2 2010 05:41 PM


You have captured some of the most impressive aerial photos of the plight of whitebark pine that I have ever seen and I've seen a lot of them.

Way to go.

Logan, UT

Laura GarvineNov 2 2010 08:14 PM

So sad. Very enlightening photos. They really put things in perspective. Thanks for posting and for all the other work you do to keep us informed and showing us how to help.

Barbara JensenNov 2 2010 10:07 PM

I'm very sad to see this devastation, and I only wish the mainstream media covered this kind of documentation.

BeckyNov 2 2010 10:57 PM

Great this is diifficult to see i work in the park and it overwhelming !!

VNov 3 2010 01:42 AM

I clicked on your story because I am curious about Yellow Stone Park. I visited many, many years ago.
"Pine beetle" has been a story for a long time up here in Canada. The problem is fading into the background because the pine trees are gone. Yes. ALL.
I saw a very interesting lecture at Simon Fraser University about the disappearing tropical glaciers, that included information on the pine beetle. I can't remember the lecturer's name )-: Due to the lack of cold weather, the pine beetle has increased their sexual lifespan manyfold. So they are reproducing many more times a year. Thus devastation to the natural balances.

We think about how we can entertain ourselves this evening while, in 100 years we may be seeing the last of crucial glaciers.

I have faith that we can connect our daily lives so that we can inherit a future.

I understand your concern. I also imagine that there is much beauty around you.

Congratulations on having a good following. You are telling a story...!


Madeleine LapointeNov 3 2010 01:45 AM

Denial is the most defining characteristic of humans. Declaring these trees 'Endangered' will not stop the devastation due to Global Warming. Chestnut, Elm, Oak, Fir, now theses pine trees. Plummeting bee populations (as in no more crops due to no pollination); wild variations in weather patterns; Iceless Arctic, dying marine mammals and polar bears. Then we have to add the human direct destruction of the Gulf, the river system in Michigan, the wanton destruction of the last herd of wild bison in Yellowstone by the very Agencies that are supposed to be protecting them, and the annihilation in a horribly inhumane way of the last of the Mustangs(supposedly protected by a unanimous bill of Congress passed in 1971), by the Bureau of Land Management (remember, also in charge of 'overseeing ' the safety of the oil wells in the Gulf....) and that is just YOUR country...much worse is being done in so called Third World countries that have no way to protect themselves from Big Oil and Big Money. God help us, it may be too late already....

Lou SNov 3 2010 08:48 AM

Mr. Skoglund,
I thoroughly enjoy reading your articles. They are always informative and relevant to our great wild west. Thank you for great journalism.
Lou Santini

GavinNov 3 2010 01:56 PM

Seriously are you liberals still on this Global Warming bunk. Didn't you get the memo. The fact that that was a fraud came out months ago with the exposed emails.

The fact that trees are dyeing does not mean things are falling apart. The land changes and nature transforms as it has for thousands of years.

kyleNov 3 2010 02:43 PM

Gavin, keep you head in the sand so we don't have to here your denial.

JenniferNov 3 2010 03:05 PM

Gavin - ONE study was found to be fraudulent. What about the thousands of others? Is EVERY study that proves scientifically that we're going through global warming wrong? I think not.

Pete H.Nov 3 2010 03:12 PM

Just to be wonky, the pine is an ecological engineer not a keystone species. A keystone species is one that has a very large impact on an ecosystem even though its biomass is low (Sea otter, beaver, etc.).

Matt SkoglundNov 3 2010 06:06 PM


Thanks so much for your comments. I really appreciate it.

Pete, check out pages 7-9 of our Endangered Species Act petition, which describes the role of whitebark pine as a foundation and keystone species. Here is a link to the petition:

Thanks again.


SonjaNov 4 2010 01:27 AM

These dead and dying whitebark pines pose another problem. Whether they are left to decompose naturally or are taken down by wildfires, they emit large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere -- the air we breathe. Combine that with what could be increased CO2 emissions from the volcano, you have a more serious concern.

WackmanNov 4 2010 10:30 AM

There is a British Columbia forester named Don Fowler who is deep into this issue, is deeply concerned--and has remarkable things to say. I've been writing about him on my blog site: Some/Home. Here's a link:

Matt SkoglundNov 4 2010 10:48 AM

Sonja and Wackman,

Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate them.

And, Wackman, great blog. I look forward to reading it.


BobbiNov 4 2010 11:53 AM

The dieback of trees is all over. Look at the pine forests in Alaska and Washington state. Thousands of acres of trees being lost to disease and insects. This is not a natural occuring event as some people think. These forests have been around for thousands of years with no problem other then the occasional fire. Madeleine Lapointe said it all. Her statement should be shouted from the roof tops. I am willing to bet people will be dying due to global warming within 25 years. The droughts and lack of water is already happening due to warmer climates. I feel sorry for the younger generation, I feel for my granddaughter. I really doubt she will live to old age. I see the world dying now as we speak.

bruce gordonNov 5 2010 12:12 PM

Matt these are great
where is the picture of the helicopter

but Wally you are being extremely humble as the images you captured were also truly excellent ...after Janes

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