A 'ragtag team' of scientists, rangers and citizens works to save whitebarks

  • TreeFight founder David Gonzales leads a group up volunteers up Mount Glory in western Wyoming.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • A volunteer staples a package of verbenone to a whitebark pine. The chemical helps control pine beetles, but the effect lasts only one summer.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • From left, Chris Collie and Dave de Roulac, contract climbers, help seasonal Forest Service employee Kale Newkirk clean whitebark pinecones in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest in September. Twenty bushels of whitebark cones were harvested from the Shoshone National Forest this summer.

    Ellen L. Jungck

Our management of whitebark pine has a melancholy history, shaped by ignorance and mistakes as well as by the determination to rescue a species we have sent into a downward spiral.

Foresters accidentally introduced white pine blister rust, an Asian fungous disease, to North America around 1900, by importing infected pine seedlings for tree plantations. Since then, blister rust -- which kills a tree's cambium, eventually cutting off the flow of nutrients by girdling the trunk -- has become one of the most troublesome conifer diseases on this continent.

Land managers tried to stop it. From the 1920s to the 1960s, for instance, federal agencies killed millions of native plants in the Ribes genus (mostly currants and gooseberry) on federal lands in the West, because those plants help spread blister rust. Ultimately, that war was abandoned because it was too difficult to eradicate currants and gooseberry, and other common plants such as Indian paintbrush were also spreading blister rust.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies carried out another policy that was bad for whitebarks -- the aggressive suppression of wildfires beginning in the early 1900s. Whitebark pines evolved to be somewhat fire-resistant and able to colonize burned areas, so the war on wildfires effectively limited the amount of ground where they could spread and allowed competing species of trees to invade their stands.

In recent years, manmade climate change -- largely caused by the buildup of fossil-fuel emissions in the atmosphere -- is putting even more stress on the whitebarks. The general warming will reduce the cold mountain habitat preferred by whitebarks. It's also allowing another executioner, the mountain pine beetle, to tear into whitebark forests that used to be too cold for beetles.

For those reasons, last July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the whitebark pine "appears likely to be in danger of extinction." Ruling on a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the agency found: Blister rust has already killed up to half of the whitebarks in northern Idaho and northwestern Montana and has infected nearly all the rest in those areas; it's also killed or infected 30 to 40 percent of the whitebarks in Oregon and Washington. The explosion of beetles killed a half-million acres of whitebarks in 2007, and another 2 million acres' worth in 2009. The tree's range will likely shrink by 70 percent within two decades, and as much as 97 percent by 2100. (Whitebarks in Western Canada are experiencing a similar decline.)

A key federal court in the West, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, raised more alarms on Nov. 22: It ruled that, because of the decline in whitebark pine seeds -- a crucial food source for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park region -- the Fish and Wildlife Service must put Yellowstone grizzlies back on the endangered species list.

Despite the dire trends, the Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to formally list the whitebark pine for protection under the Endangered Species Act, due to lack of funds for doing a comprehensive, time-consuming recovery plan.

So an unusual assortment of scientists in the agencies and academia, district rangers, environmentalists, consultants, and volunteer "citizen scientists" is trying to save the whitebarks. Their efforts include:

• The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, founded by some alarmed researchers in 2001 and based in Missoula, Mont., has promoted a multi-pronged strategy: Spread the word about the ecological importance of whitebarks; thin and burn whitebark stands that are overrun by fir and spruce, to simulate natural fires and encourage the growth of healthier trees that produce more cones and seeds; plus collect cones and seeds from trees that show some resistance to blister rust, grow seedlings and plant them to spread that resistance throughout the range of whitebarks.

"We're a science-based organization working behind the scenes," says Diana Tomback, a biology professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and the foundation's director. Her doctoral research in the 1970s nailed down some fascinating details, including how the Clark's nutcracker, a Western songbird in the crow family, plants nearly all the whitebark seeds that successfully grow into trees.

Right now, the foundation is working with American Forests, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that is embarking on a five-year "Western Forests Campaign" to raise millions of dollars to restore whitebarks on tens of thousands of acres. (The campaign is so new that even basic details are still up in the air.) "There's no way to restore every stand (of dying or dead whitebarks)," Tomback says. "We have to be highly strategic" choosing locations.

• A "ragtag team" that includes environmentalists, a pilot, and two science-oriented backcountry skiers has greatly advanced the understanding of the whitebark crisis in the Yellowstone region: Their effort was triggered by a 2007 Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that only "16 percent of the total area of whitebark pine (in and around Yellowstone) has experienced some level of mortality due to mountain pine beetles." Jesse Logan, an entomologist who headed the Forest Service's mountain pine beetle research from 1992 until he retired and moved to Montana in 2006, believed that figure was far too low, partly drawing from his experience as a frequent skier in whitebark habitat. Logan hooked up with Louisa Willcox, the Natural Resources Defense Council's Montana-based point person for whitebarks; Wally Macfarlane, a Utah-based backcountry skier who makes his living as a consultant in GIS and GPS mapping; and Bruce Gordon, head of EcoFlight, a Colorado-based environmentalist air force.

"(Our) ragtag team came together with very little funding. It was kind of unique," says Macfarlane. To get accurate data on Yellowstone's whitebarks, they made test flights over the region in 2008, using a small plane rigged with special cameras and GPS technology, and then, in 2009, systematically flew over all the Yellowstone watersheds. They took more than 4,500 aerial photos, mapped their data, developed a system for classifying mortality, and sent hikers to verify it on the ground. A stunning 95 percent of Yellowstone's whitebark sub-watersheds were being hit by beetles, they found, and 46 percent showed "severe mortality." (The stands were defined at the "sub-watershed" level by discrete ridgelines within watersheds.)

Due to agency delays in initiating funding, "Wally and Louisa basically funded the (2009 flights) with their credit cards," says Logan. Eventually NRDC and the Forest Service each spent about $150,000 on the effort (reimbursing Willcox and Macfarlane). "It was pretty shocking," says Willcox. "A lot of people's jaws hit the ground, because from the ground you can't see the whole story -- you have to go up in a plane."

Logan, now 67, continues to be a leading voice in the whitebark effort, saying that beetles are even more of a threat than blister rust. Some species of pines -- especially lodgepoles -- have evolved chemical defenses against the beetles, but very few whitebarks have such defenses, because whitebarks didn't have to deal with beetles much until the recent onset of climate change. "It's not something I can walk away from," Logan says.

• TreeFight, a tiny group in Jackson, Wyo. -- founded in 2009 by David Gonzales, a skier who works in moviemaking, photography and writing -- is trying to protect individual whitebarks from beetles. With a budget of about $30,000 so far -- a few grants from foundations and donations from individuals -- TreeFight has recruited hundreds of volunteers to staple about 1,600 packets of verbenone, a chemical that discourages beetles, to whitebarks near Jackson. Each packet lasts only one summer, so each tree needs to be treated every year.

Gonzales has also made an award-winning video documenting the TreeFight effort. He hopes that next year, TreeFight volunteers will plant 1,000 to 2,000 whitebark seedlings. "Everyone is really excited about citizen science -- it's a buzzword now -- but the implementation is really difficult," Gonzales says. "Most people are not interested" in doing fieldwork, so he's going to concentrate on recruiting more schoolkids. Perhaps because it's their future that's threatened, they seem more enthusiastic than their elders about trying to alleviate the seemingly irresistible impacts of climate change.

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A tree-climber's tale of harvesting cones to save whitebark pines
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