Climate Change Brings Pine Beetle Infestation
to the White Bark Pine of the Wind River Range
Scientists, activists, recreational leaders, national press, film makers, legal experts and of course a conservation pilot converged on a beautiful morning in Lander, Wyoming to fly over the majestic Wind River Range. The objective of the morning’s flights was to examine the extent of beetle damage as part of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) White Bark Pine Beetle Expedition.
The White Bark Pine is the foundation of high country ecosystems in this part of the country and its nuts are a prime food source for wildlife ranging from the Grizzly Bear to Clarks Nutcracker. Many people are familiar with the Pine Beetle that is devastating much of the west from Colorado to Canada. Until recently the White Bark Pine had been immune to this outbreak. Now, it is believed that a number of factors related to global warming and its effect on moisture and heat have made this species of tree vulnerable as well.
The Pine beetle is a remarkable species. A healthy tree can usually defend itself but studies have showed that increased temperatures stress the trees,. When this occurs the beetles reproduce rapidly, with thousands of beetles hatching simultaneously. The beetles release pheromones that aggregate them at just the right time. This “synchronistic emergence” kills the tree and wreaks havoc on the health of the ecosystem.
Our expedition took to the air to reconnoiter the rugged and remote areas of the Wind Rivers where there are few trails and fewer people. Scientists on board documented the extent of damage done to White Bark Pine stands in this region, which are clearly not as affected as other White Bark Pine areas in the US. Possibly, this area has avoided infestation due to a unique cooler climate, with significant glaciation, which might inhibit the activity of the Mountain Bark Beetle. As a result of these flights, the New York Times will soon publish an article addressing climate change and its growing impact on the interconnectedness of species within an ecosystem. One of our passengers, a Forest Service scientist, whose Beetle infestation model has proven true so far, will continue to monitor the effects of climate change moisture and temperature with the help of students from NOLS and how this combination stimulates aggressive Pine beetle infestation on western wildlands.
Dear Friends and Supporters,
Oil rigs rushing by in a blur, roads fragmenting the landscape, trees turning strange colors of brown and rust, dull skies and then miles of untouched wilderness, whisking by just as the summer did. These are images we encountered as we flew for issues ranging from energy, roadless areas, beetle infestation and the establishment of biological corridors. As EcoFlight flew – literally - from issue to issue this summer, we have continued to support the important work of conservation organizations playing defense against the current administrations aggressive resource extraction policies.
Part of our mission is to include press on each of our flights. This summer we were extremely successful and flew with McNeil Lehrer, CBS and the New York Times among others. When interviewed, I emphasize how our flights let the land speak for itself and how we encourage our passengers to learn more about the issues and to speak out and let their opinions be heard. I recently attended the World Premiere of A Land out of Time, a stirring documentary by filmmaker Mark Harvey about gas drilling in the Rocky Mountains. The film features people from all walks of life who have been affected by energy development in the west. Ranchers, outfitters, homemakers and townspeople each expressed in their own way how energy development in their area was affecting the local ecosystem, their communities and their quality of life. Asked what inspired him to make this film, Mark said that while he was deeply concerned about the environment, he was also concerned about the impact energy development policies were having on our nation’s democracy. When 98% of public comments support saving the top of Colorado’s Roan Plateau yet drilling commences nonetheless, something bigger is at stake here, and this is just one example. Officials elected to represent us are no longer listening to the people on the ground. Mark’s film speaks to these American concerns. It’s a film that can preach to more than just “the Choir” because it shows how such policies affect average people’s lives – and livelihoods.
It’s my belief that the administration is starting to “outrun its headlights” and that growing numbers of people throughout the West now realize what is being done to our public lands. Much like EcoFlight, A Land out of Time brings a voice to both the people and the land. Learn more about this film at www.alandoutoftime.com. See it if you can, and bring your town to see it with you.
Wildlife corridor area near Nelson, B.C. (c) Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight 2006
The Wolf Creek Pass Wildlife Linkage spans the Continental Divide at 10,857 feet and lies almost entirely within National Forest lands. The San Juan National Forest encompasses the west side of the Divide, while the Rio Grand National Forest lies on the east side. The Wiminuche Wilderness and the South San Juan Wilderness are “held together” by the Wolf Creek linkage. Despite this critical interconnectedness, a major development scheme to build a city of up to 10,000 people just below the Continental Divide is now being planned. This development would decimate the biological significance of this linkage. The planned Village at Wolf Creek threatens critical wildlife habitat, watersheds, and wetlands and would impair the San Juan core area and the designated Wolf Creek Pass Lynx Linkage that are vital to the recovery of the southern Rockies lynx population. IN addition to Lynx, a variety of wildlife are known to move through the area including mountain lion, black bear, bobcat, pine marten, elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep. Many birds, amphibians, other small mammals, and plants depend on this rich habitat for year round use and migration as well.
The Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project (SREP) has been actively working to protect corridors and linkages in Colorado and the Southern Rockies. Fighting the monsoon weather that has dominated Colorado this summer, EcoFlight teamed up with SREP for a day of very successful flights, flying State Senator Isgar and staff from Senator Salazar’s office, along with reporters and photographers over this remote and threatened wilderness region. As often happens, the experience of flying this region brought this issue into sharp focus, allowing participants and the public, through press reports, a closer view of the great impact the Village project could impart upon this important wildlife linkage area. Following the flight Senator Salazar issued a press release stating, "At the end of the day, I just don't see how a project of this scope can continue". "I've met with the involved parties and asked questions. With the Forest Service's latest answers, it has become even clearer the proposal would require many special concessions without the promise of any real gain for the greater community. Instead, the development brings the threat of dangerous roads, contaminated water and harm to the very wildlife and landscape that makes this area so unique. I will not support a project that hurts the community I represent."
Linkages and Corridors: Critical Connectivity
From the air it quickly becomes clear that sizable habitat for wildlife is rapidly disappearing. To prevent wildlands from becoming islands unable to sustain long-term ecosystem functions, scientists propose the use of corridors and linkages. A corridor implies animal migration travel routes; a linkage refers to a broad area of habitat where dependant species can find food, shelter and security and provide connectivity between larger habitat blocks.
Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y), the very concept begs the utilization of aircraft. The Y2Y initiative’s mission is to ensure that the world-renowned wilderness, wildlife, native plants and natural processes of the region continue to function as an interconnected web of life, capable of supporting all of its natural and human communities, for present and future generations. EcoFlight has long been a partner in this important conservation effort.
This summer, EcoFlight’s work on behalf of the Y2Y initiative focused on the Clearwater Basin near the towns of Moscow and Lewiston, Idaho and the Selkirk Mountains of eastern Washington and British Columbia, Canada. This region is an interface between forest and prairie and holds a number of endemic species. It is at the southern end of interior wet-belt forests, yet contains some of the finest examples of those forests. Indeed, scientists believe that because plants and animals in the Basin escaped glaciation, they became the genetic pools by which the forests to the north.were populated.The purpose of our flights was to identify vital wildlife corridors and empower grassroots community actions that will help to protect these areas of connectivity so critical to far ranging species such as the Grizzly bear, Woodland caribou and Lynx. We flew conservationists, national press, wildlife biologists, photographers and individuals from local communities stretching from Idaho into the Canadian Rockies. From the air, it is abundantly clear which lands remain roadless and contain healthy ecosystems. Scheduled stops allowed for meetings with local conservationists, concerned citizens and local press. Wildlife biologist Lance Craighead of the Craighead Institute, flying with EcoFlight for the duration of the project, provided presentations describing his data on the need for corridors as one tool in preserving the larger ecosystem.
As we flew further north, attention turned to habitat corridors between the Purcell and North Selkirk Mountains. These steep, heavily forested mountains are being decimated by roads, sedimentation and other impacts of industrial scale logging practices. These practices especially threaten the Mountain Caribou, which travel to these areas from high elevation summer grounds. This severely endangered species has seen its numbers drop to just 1900 animals due to human impacts on their old growth forest habitat. Dense bush along forest roads and within clearcut areas create physical barriers to the caribou’s migration and feeding requirements. More flights are planned to further assist the identification of critical corridor areas and organize grassroots community efforts that will protect this specie’s critical ecosystem habitat.
Congressional staffers, ranchers and outfitters discuss public lands
issues after their flight. (c) Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight 2006.
In August EcoFlight and its conservation partners organized a fact finding tour to help congressional staffers learn more about the threat of oil and gas development on public lands in northwestern Colorado and southwestern Wyoming. The result was a true bipartisan success story – congressional staffers from both parties attended the event that included flights and a raft trip, providing participants with both a river and aerial view of the conservation challenges and opportunities the current situation presents. EcoFlight sponsored the trip, with The Wilderness Society sponsoring the rafting trip. EarthJustice was instrumental in organizing logistics. Our partners on the ground included Western Colorado Congress,
Colorado Mountain Club, the Upper Green River Valley Coalition and a number of individuals whose lives or businesses have been affected by the prolific oil and gas development in these regions.
The Fly-Out focused on the Roan Plateau and the Pinedale area, including the Pinedale Anticline, Jonah gas fields, and the Red Desert. The bird’s eye view provided by the flights allowed the development to be perceived in its true perspective. Facts presented by Matt Sura in Grand Junction and Linda Baker in Pinedale further fleshed out the issue. Concerned citizens in each community met with the congressional staffers and shared their personal stories of the enormous impacts energy development has had on the quality of their lives and livelihoods. The Fly Out event, conducted in consultation with the Rocky Mountain Energy Campaign, was found to be an effective model for educating our elected leaders in Washington. EcoFlight and its partner organizations are already making plans to replicate this successful event.
Jonah gas fields, Upper Green River Valley, Wyoming.
(c) Jane Pargiter, EcoFlight 2006.