Whitebark Pine declines

Photo by Lizzie Blumenthal Researcher Max Grigri explains to hikers about the pinecones’ important interaction with various species.

After months of exploring the Absaroka-Beartooth (AB) Wilderness, documenting the Whitebark Pine devastation, two researchers took community members on an expository hike to share the knowledge and educate the public. Driving up the Beartooth Highway Sun. Sept. 22, the group of ten stopped at Vista Point as the first introduction to the Whitebark Pine’s decline. Across the valley, colorful tree forests of red, grey, yellow and a few green pines paint a threatened landscape. The researchers Emily Francis and Max Grigri who have been extensively studying the Whitebark Pine since July, inform that the color of the trees indicate the time of the mountain beetle outbreak.

The yellow represent 1 year, the red 3-4 and the grey 4-5. Such sights are an ironically beautiful and too common of a display in the AB Wilderness as we learn about the serious and current situation. Arriving at the hiking location at Line Creek Plateau, Francis and Grigri explain their research project before we begin the 10-mile hike into their study area. Since the start of their climate change Fellowship program with Clean Air Cool Planet and the AB Wilderness Foundation, Francis and Grigri have been doing groundwork, hiking deep into 24 remote areas of the AB Wilderness and six in the Shoshone forest to assess the Whitebark Pine and test the findings from their advisors’ 2009 landscape assessment study and outbreak map. In 2009, to document the Whitebark Pine forests situation, the advisors flew planes over remote wilderness in the greater Yellowstone area to take geo-reference photographs of the different tree colors and produce an outbreak map indicating the severity of different regions. At that time, the map indicated low levels of outbreak in the Beartooth plateau, where Francis and Grigri have been studying.

Therefore, the 2009 hypothesis was that because the Beartooth plateau is the largest contiguous landmass above 10,000 feet in the lower 48 states, the colder and harsher conditions of the Whitebark forest in the that area could prevent an outbreak of mountain pine beetle. But what Grigri and Francis have been witnessing is that the beetle outbreak has worsened in the Beartooth plateau since 2009, as they have documented more outbreak in that region than the aerial map had shown. “The report showed there was something serious going on. What our focus is on is gathering data and telling a story of what’s happening with Whitebark Pine in AB wilderness, whether beetles or blister rust, we’re accounting for both and observing.

The places we go are remote and hard to get into and people haven’t done it. Our job is to go out on the ground to places people haven’t been and document what’s going on, “Grigri said. The Whitebark Pine, identified easily by its wide crown, is a keystone species in the ecosystem. With its ability to thrive at higher elevations, the pine seeds provide a high protein food source for grizzlies, squirrels and the Clark’s Nutcracker, which also helps spread the seeds for reproduction. Yet, the decline of the pine caused by the mountain pine beetle and blister rust outbreaks changes the relationship between these species, making their survival more uncertain and critical. Research has shown the mountain pine beetle, native parasite to the lower-altitude Lodgepole Pine forests, whose life cycle is limited by temperature, have been moving to higher altitude forests due to climate change. The loss of cold extremes and a two-degree temperature increase in the trunk of the tree, that would otherwise prevent the outbreak, are creating an environment allowing the beetle to survive. Entering Francis and Grigri’s study area, they show us the beetle, its larvae and the extent of damage. Eating away at the trees, not only do the beetles destroy the tree, but also deplete its reproduction energy, which limits the growth of pinecones, a major food source for many species. Studies have found that the grizzly bears that consume more Whitebark pine seeds reproduce more and earlier, which helps to maintain grizzly bear population.

Also, because Whitebark Pine only lives in high alpine and remote regions, the tree plays an intricate role of drawing grizzly bears away from human dense-areas. But, according to the researchers, projections that the cone count is down this year may indicate an increase in the encounter rate with humans. Typical of their plot surveys, Francis and Grigri showed the group what they document. Included were the squirrel middens, the storage spot for pine seeds, which are frequently dug up and raided by grizzly bears, the current forest conditions, the sounds of wildlife, and other site properties. “These are important interactions and with the decline of the Whitebark Pine, we see how it affects the rest of the ecosystem,” Francis said. Upon completion of their 4-month research, surveying 30 remote wilderness sights, Francis and Grigri will meet with their advisor at Utah State University to write up their findings and provide a case study about the design of the project as a rapid ecological survey.

“Rapid ecological studies are a relatively new idea and can be done quickly We hope to try to get people involved who aren’t necessarily trained by keeping data collection simple, which allows for more to be collected,” Grigri said. The idea is to educate and inform people about what’s going on and motivate them to help.”