September 2009 - Pine Beetle Survey, Yellowstone

Sep 20, 2009
Day 7 in the month of July, year 2009, Starship 1XE skims over the endless forests of the Northern Rockies in Wyoming and Montana.  We embark from Jackson, Wyoming and the Bridger Teton National Forest and proceed over the mighty Gros Ventres mountains near Togwotee Pass.

Whitebark Pine Beetle Attack, Absaroka Range. (c) Jane Pargiter, EcoFlight 2007.

The snows have left these mid level locations and we are above the lime green aspen groves which are beginning to sprout their leaves. But what one typically sees at high elevations -  the vibrant dark green of the pine forests - is absent. In its place is a dead and dying landscape.

Our passengers include scientists and media and Forest Service personnel as we advocate for a system wide survey of  beetle damage of the white bark pine in the forests of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We are gathering base line data on the infestation to see what, if anything, can be done.

The speed of the beetle outbreak is breathtaking. Where our flights last year showed stands of red trees indicating dying areas we now have large areas of white standing dead.  The ghost forest of the Rockies.  

As we fly this spectacular ecosystem we note the fire danger.  The red of the needles represents the highest danger from fire as the canopy will burn and spread most readily. The ghost forests themselves pose a lesser, though nonetheless additional danger. The trees, after being dead a couple of years will topple over and add fuel to the understory of the forest, heightening the danger and spread of fire.

The silent tragedy of whitebark.  A phrase my friend and fellow conservationist Louisa Wilcox uses when she describes the plight of the Teton and Shoshone National  Forest that provides cover, nutrition and beauty to the sub alpine regions.  The white bark pine is succumbing to an epidemic of beetles not unlike that of the mountain pine beetle attacking the lodgepole pines in Colorado and Canada.

The consequences of losing this unique forest ecosystem will be catastrophic for a variety of wildlife, including the Yellowstone grizzlies, which rely on whitebark pine for food and shelter.
Oh, and as we head back to Colorado after another successful mission, there is an addendum....the Forest Service approved the project due in part to the perspective that we were able to provide.

Fast forward as only we can do in our starship.  The powerful aerial perspective helped the Forest Service to understand the magnitude of this issue and to fund a full aerial survey of the forests of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this summer. EcoFlight helped develop a system to document, survey and virtually show the white bark pine trees of the entire Yellowstone Ecosystem.  By utilizing the latest in Google technology software, 2 digital GPS cameras and a team of seasoned citizen scientists, we accumulated data that will live forever and document this once in a lifetime phenomenon.

This data will give scientists a window into climate change, a chance to preserve the genetic seed of this unique species and very importantly a scientific basis on which to base testimony to help determine the fate of the Grizzly bear. The Grizzly of the Yellowstone Ecosystem was controversially delisted from the Endangered Species list in 2007 and is now imperiled by the loss of its primary fatty food for hibernation, the white bark pine seed.

The stakes are high and EcoFlight will keep you posted as the suspense builds in this mountain drama.