By Whitney Leonard
In the wintertime, the tiny town of Cooke City, Montana is accessible only by a twisty road that runs 50 miles through the northern section of Yellowstone National Park and then abruptly dead-ends—for cars, at least—at the east end of Cooke City’s Main Street, where the plows stop and the snow begins. On skis, it is a different story. For the fifteen of us who gathered in Cooke for a field workshop on whitebark pine last weekend, the end of the pavement and the beginning of the snow was where our trip began.
As one of the organizers of this workshop, I was particularly excited to be standing at the edge of town, finally strapping on my skis along with a full turnout of folks from all over Montana. NRDC had teamed up with the Montana Backcountry Alliance to organize this workshop with the aim of educating citizens about whitebark pine, its importance in the ecosystem, and the crisis it faces as mountain pine beetles munch their way across the American West on an unprecedented scale. We formed an intriguing crew that day, with an age range spanning five decades, and with professions ranging from seasonal forest service employees to a Buddhist educator, a journalist, and a former mayor.
We were extremely lucky to have beetle expert and backcountry skier extraordinaire Dr. Jesse Logan leading our workshop, imparting both his knowledge and his enthusiasm for whitebark pine. Now retired, Jesse most recently served as Project Leader for the Forest Service’s Interior West Bark Beetle Project and is one of the country’s top experts on whitebark pine and the mischievous mountain pine beetle. And while he loves to make jokes about his age, he could probably leave most of us younger skiers in the dust if he wanted to.
As Jesse explained to our group, whitebark pine is a keystone species in high-altitude ecosystems, where it not only provides shelter and food for animals but also stabilizes and shades the snowpack to extend precious snowmelt flows into the summer months. Whitebark seeds are also a critical food for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), and the tree’s decline was a key factor in the recent decision by a federal judge to put grizzlies back on the endangered species list.
Whitebark pine across the GYE is now rapidly falling victim to the hungry mountain pine beetle, which bores into and kills these trees, as climate change allows the beetle to thrive in previously inhospitable whitebark forests. As beetles take the mature trees, an introduced pathogen known as blister rust is busy killing the smaller trees, creating a perfect storm for our poor whitebark. Last summer NRDC teamed up with the Forest Service to support an unprecedented ecosystem-wide aerial assessment conducted by Jesse Logan, geographer Wally McFarlane, pilot Bruce Gordon, and a team of other scientists and citizens. The results were staggering, showing that whitebark forests have been hit much harder than previously estimated—and whitebark may be functionally extinct from the GYE in less than a decade.
As the situation gets more dire by the year, continuing to document the pace of change is key. An ecosystem as vast as the GYE is the perfect place to make use of the people who are already out in the backcountry every day, skiing, snowboarding, or hiking through whitebark territory. So NRDC has worked with our partners to build a network of citizen scientists who contribute photographs and observations to a growing database, and last weekend’s workshop was designed to expand this network. Montana Backcountry Alliance was a perfect partner for this type of effort, as a group of people who already appreciate the value of the rugged ecosystems where they recreate. By teaching people like this to understand and document the ongoing whitebark devastation, we are expanding our collective capacity to tell the story of this crisis.
[Dr. Jesse Logan (second from left), myself (far right), and other participants skiing up the Daisy Pass road on Henderson Mountain]
The first part of our ski tour in Cooke City can’t really be called a backcountry tour, since we were skinning up a snow-covered road, but even that was enough to start giving us a sense of the landscape. Looking across the valley, we could see a carpet of forest that looked healthy in the valley floor, but at the higher elevations—the whitebark forests—we could see telltale patches of dead or dying trees. On our side of the valley, as we continued skiing up the flank of Henderson Mountain, we slowly rose out of the spruce/fir mixed forest and into groves where we got our first close-up look at whitebark pine. This was what we’d come for.
To describe this experience, I should first explain that ski touring through whitebark forest with Jesse is a bit like getting a tour of the Vatican from the pope himself. He has a deep passion for his surroundings, he can answer any relevant question you could throw at him, and he sincerely wants to you to learn from him and to spread this knowledge to others.
Jesse stopped at the first dead whitebark tree along the trail, and we all gathered around like eager little students. He pointed out certain key features—the round spread of the crown and the clusters of five needles tell you it’s a whitebark; the little holes and bits of residue on the bark tell you this tree has been attacked by mountain pine beetles, and the rusty color of the needles tells you it was probably attacked and killed two summers ago. After staying green for a while, the needles probably turned red last summer and they will likely fall off next summer, leaving the gray “ghost tree” that is becoming all too common in the GYE.
[The group inspecting our first dead whitebark tree]
Moving on, we gradually ascended into pure whitebark forest, where we saw more healthy-looking green trees mixed with the obviously dead red and gray trees. Now we were really in the heart of the classroom. We spent the rest of the afternoon in this section of forest, moving from tree to tree like second-graders playing soccer (except that we were on skis), clustered tightly and eager to get in on the action. There Jesse showed us trees in different stages of health, pointed out the characteristic vertical tunnels bored by mountain pine beetles under the bark, and finally showed us… drumroll… our first real mountain pine beetle!
It is amazing that such tiny beetles can cause such large-scale devastation among trees that could otherwise live for over 1000 years. The mature beetles look pretty much exactly like mouse turds, as one member of our group noted, and Jesse acknowledged it was the best comparison he’d heard yet. After hearing so much about them and seeing evidence everywhere, we all got a kick out of finally seeing those hungry little beetles.
Having had a chance to see both trees and beetles and every state of their interactions, we eventually turned and headed back down the mountain. Ski conditions, as had been clear on the way up, were not going to be ideal, but we’re always content to take what we can get during a bad snow winter like this. Skiing through beautiful, perfectly-spaced whitebark—even on a somewhat crunchy crust—still made for a nice trip down. Then hitting the snowy road again, we flew down through the lower sections of the forest, back toward town. As Cooke City’s few buildings glided into sight, suddenly the snow on the road ended and we found ourselves standing back on Main Street.
Stowing away our ski gear, we all went our separate ways at the end of the day. But the next time each of us travels into the backcountry, we are now equipped to be part of the citizen science network documenting the whitebark crisis. New ambassadors for this majestic tree, we are eager to tell the story of whitebark and the mountain pine beetle, and to advocate for more resources and research into what can be done to protect these trees and these ecosystems.
Is there any hope? Will the few whitebark trees with natural beetle resistance hold the key to whitebark survival? Does our best hope lie in gnarled krummholz or dwarf trees that are currently too small to attract beetles? Researchers like Jesse are working to find the answers to these questions. And now we are here to help.
[Mixed forest with some living whitebark (front left), some dead whitebark (center), and other conifers]