Global Positioning System technology will help Bridger-Teton National Forest officials map the extent of whitebark pine trees killed by beetles in the Greater Yellowstone Area.
Work will get under way this month after the forest received a $150,000 grant for the project.
U.S. Forest Service officials estimate that mountain pine beetles have killed trees of several species on 7 million acres of Rocky Mountain forests, an area greater than three Yellowstone National Parks. Bridger-Teton National Forest contains an estimated 400,000 acres of whitebark pine, although officials think the tree’s range is on the decline because of mountain pine beetle infestations and the blister rust fungus.
The Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee’s whitebark pine subcommittee requested the grant from the Forest Service’s Forest Health Protection program, said Liz Davy, timber and silviculture program manager for Bridger-Teton.
“The whitebark pine subcommittee has general mid-scale information about whitebark pine mortality, and we wanted more information,” she said.
The Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee is composed of officials with land-management agencies from around the region.
Officials have arranged for a nonprofit that uses small aircraft to educate people about environmental issues to begin preliminary mapping flights July 5. EcoFlight President Bruce Gordon will fly the plane while technicians sync video and still cameras with a GPS device to develop the map. Davy said the flying will last a month or two and she hopes to have a final product by next spring.
A plane is the best option to map infested or dead whitebark pines because many tree stands are in wilderness or roadless areas that might otherwise be inaccessible.
“Most of us are aware of where the bulk of the mortality is,” Davy said. “[But] we need to look watershed by watershed [to find out] where we have a lot of mortality and where we have trees that are still alive.”
The data gathered during the flights will help develop a strategy to manage whitebark pine that will encompass the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. So far, the beetles have left isolated pockets of whitebark mostly untouched. Davy said Bridger-Teton National Forest and Grand Teton National Park have many beetle-killed trees, while places such as Gallatin National Forest and the Absarokas have so far avoided much damage.
Davy said figuring out the extent of whitebark pine tree damage is important because the species plays such a wide-ranging role in the ecosystem. Whitebark pine provides food for grizzly bears and benefits watersheds and many high-elevation species.
“It’s a keystone species,” Davy said. “It’s very important in our ecosystem. It allows snow to be retained for longer times. They provide ... a little richer environment up there for greater diversity of species.”
As a pilot, Gordon said the changes he’s seen from mountain pine beetle infestations are dramatic.
“In all these years doing conservation flying, we’ve had outbreaks before, but never anything of this magnitude,” he said. “I’ve seen it every flight, and over the last year or so it’s become really pronounced.”
Natural Resources Defense Council senior wildlife advocate Louisa Willcox helped organize the project after a smaller-scale effort last year.
“We couldn’t afford to do the whole ecosystem,” she said of the previous attempt. “We missed little bits between the flight lines.”
“We’re going to fly the whole ecosystem, and the Forest Service made it possible,” Willcox said. “Even if we get bad news, we’ll get accurate news, and that’s what we want. The beetle epidemic ... is moving so fast that nobody really knows what’s really going on.”