Whitebark Pine Citizen Scientists: In Their Own Words
Posted September 19, 2011 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places
The Beginning of our Citizen Science Work: Whitebark Pine Training Program, Dubois, WYoming, 2008. The players:
Upper left: Dr. Jesse Logan, whitebark pine/mountain pine beetle expert and the spiritual/scientific godfather of our citizen science work.
Center: John Gookin, curriculum director for the National Outdoor Leadership School, based in Lander, Wyoming who helped launch citizen science work on whitebark pine in 2008.
Right: Robert Hoskins, ex-Marine and naturalist extraordinaire, in the proud tradition of Olaus and Adolph Murie. Robert has provided keen insights and early warnings of ecological change in the southern Absaroka Mountains.
Right: Dr. Gaby Chavarria, former science director of NRDC, who helped make the whitebark pine citizen science work possible.
Left: Louisa Willcox, yes, that’s me.
Forrest McCarthy, Jackson Wyoming, Master outdoorsman and GIS computer whiz, who helped us make our system of collecting whitebark pine data possible in 2009.
Citizen Scientists in their own words
The work that I’ve been able to do on whitebark pine has been a game-changer for me—it’s impossible not to see the immediacy and reality of what is occurring to whitebark pine. To fly-over forests that were green a few years ago, and to watch them turn red and then grey—well, it’s like a cancer on the forest, spreading so quickly. It’s so powerful visually. This work has been a wake-up call, a jolt, an exclamation point about climate change. If I were in charge, I would hedge my bets, and do what we need to do to protect this amazing landscape that we are blessed to live in.
The other thing that I’ve really been impressed with is the dedication, intellect, imagination and fortitude of the citizen scientists I work with, who volunteered their time collecting data and writing about the findings that were necessary to convince politicians and people that something major is happening and we need to do something about it.
This whitebark pine work is one of the best pieces of evidence that climate change is actually happening. The fact that the change happened so fast and effected iconic species like the grizzly is mind-boggling.
I needed to do something in real wilderness while providing some service to the world. I was looking for an experience where I would learn a lot. At the first citizen science conference in Dubois, I got trained and went out with inspiring people like Jesse Logan and Wally MacFarlane and learned a ton. It was incredible to travel through the Yellowstone Ecosystem with Jesse—a premiere scientist—and experience through him the red, dead trees everywhere we went—Avalanche Peak, where everything was dead, and Clark’s nutcrackers and squirrels were vacant.
It was important for me to experience climate change viscerally and personally in an area I got to know and went back to year after year. I saw forests that had been around for about 1,000 years old, but everything, everything, the entire canopy was wiped out in the space of about three years. We were able to document this with Round River students. I used this data to study for my Master’s thesis. This was a direct result of the citizen science work I’ve done over the last several years.
It’s a scary thing, and humbling watching ecosystems slowly being snuffed out and the environmental impact that we have caused. It makes me wonder what to do with my life. I’m not giving up. I’ll work on these issues until I die, but it’s scary.
Whitebark pine and citizen science has profoundly affected my academic and personal life. Through the lens on science, I developed a sense of place in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and a sense of climate change as it is occurring in a place. Growing up in New York, you don’t see climate change, but when I went to the Wind Rivers year after year, hiking the same trails, going to the same stand of trees, I began to see the changes there. I saw the red spreading. It is impossible to not to feel something. The impact of the human footprint is affecting even the most remote ecosystem. There is no pretending. We humans have touched every place.
One time, we stood in a grove of trees and we could hear the beetles actually chew the trees. Everyone stopped. Then we kept finding what we thought to be green trees, and looking closer, we saw that beetles had found them already. It makes you feel like you’re part of the battle. If you find a green healthy tree, it’s a victory.
The research we have been doing allows you to connect your emotions to a sense of place and a commitment to do something about it. In my personal case, I’m combating the impacts of climate change by taking what I’ve learned in the field and working on the policy arena, and reaching out to people and connecting them to what is going on out on the ground.
I started into this work because I began noticing all of these old trees were dying. And then I met Wally MacFarlane and Willie Kern and saw the pictures they were taking from the air in 2009 and it was mind-blowing. And I wanted to make a short film, and that turned out to be an effort to protect the whitebark pine trees that are left through the application of verbenone, (a pheromone that tells beetles that the tree is already occupied). The whole idea has taken over my life despite the fact that the situation is depressing and possibly futile.
With TreeFight I’ve been involved in a long-term experiment to see if verbenone works and deters beetles from trees. We’ve seen some positive results. For example, last year we found that only five trees died that were verbenoned out of a total of 600 that we protected with verbenone. How well this works in the long-term is a question mark. While it seems reassuring, we may just be buying time for a particular grove of trees. Buying time, when time is probably running out. But we did get over 100 people out in the field this year, and I know we have raised a lot of public awareness, much more than when we started.
I do see how this work connects people to the forest, but it’s another step to try to get people to change their lives. How do you flip the switch so that we can save ourselves from what appears to be an ignominious end?
It’s so hard to watch these trees turn red. It’s like the trees are screaming at you “bright red”, delivering their final blood-curdling shout to the world, saying that what’s happening to me is what is going to happen to you, because we are all on the same line as these trees. We are all on the same thermometer.
I’m focusing now more on kids, eighth graders and middle school kids. They do care. And when you show them what the beetles are doing, they lower their heads and they kick the ground. It has a big impact. They know that this is what they are going to have to deal with. They absorb this material like sponges. While the adults are in denial and too wrapped up in what they are doing, the kids are different.
This work has given me a new purpose and it’s ruined my life at the same time.
Started in January of this year, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is dedicated to improving the accessibility of scientific knowledge through partnerships between adventure athletes and scientists.
In my expeditions in the backcountry, I consistently had a selfish feeling. I felt like I needed to do more by way of public service. I shared my feelings among fellow hikers, and there were other people who felt the same way that we wanted to give back if we had the tools. We’ve got some now.
In terms of our citizen science work this summer on grizzly bears and whitebark pine, we’ve gotten a great response very quickly. There is a lot of excitement, and people have been really inspired by getting out in the field and seeing grizzly bear habitat on the ground. As with any controversial issue, it is important to get public support. To do that, you need people to be hands-on and see an area, learn about an issue, and then getting engaged in the policy arena.
I also see there’s an opportunity to help scientists, and help them save a lot of money. The interest in our work is exploding.
As soon as I found out about this citizen science work, I was blown away and immediately wanted to get involved. On this weekend’s trip we got many more samples than I expected. And hiking through a whitebark pine forest will never be the same again for me. This kind of work gets you in touch with nature, and even if you are not seeing bear sign, you are paying close attention and realizing that everything is connected.
It’s interesting in these sorts of groups that everyone has a special skill. There are the good hikers, those who know plants and those who know animal sign. You need a diversity of skill when you’re doing these kinds of experiments. And there is always something to be learned no matter how skilled you are.
Pilot Jane Pargiter of Ecoflight took the above picture of the Angle Lakes area on the Bridger Teton National Forest in Wyoming in 2007. This photo became the “poster child” of the “sea of red”, a full blown outbreak of mountain pine beetle in whitebark pine. It is still being used in the Landscape Assessment System to systematically evaluate the condition of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
I think the most meaningful reason why I have been so passionate about the whitebark pine is because of the symbiotic relationship of the whitebark pine, ground squirrels, the Clark nutcracker and of course our wonderful Grizzly bear. This is nature at its most miraculous and is just so incredibly efficient; It is beneficial for all species involved. For EcoFlight to be able to try to help sustain this miracle of life for our children and grandchildren and the legacy of all creatures in the USA is very important. It also means so much on a spiritual and heart level, keeping the essence of our wild places and creatures wild.