The Whitebark Pine, a foundation species, a keystone species, is dying in great numbers across the mountain west, which includes Yellowstone.
I stand tall, proud, ancient. Overlooking the beautiful valley, the Caldera, and the mountains. Through wind, snow, ice, and rain–I stand tall. My brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles are not doing well. It is getting too hot and we have no defense against the diseases and insects that thrive in warmth. We love frigid weather, standing high above the tree line, loving the windswept mountainsides; some of us only 16 feet tall, others 66 feet tall, and our seasoned relatives are over a 1,000 years old. Regardless of size or age, we all stand guard on the mountainsides, using our shade to keep snow hard and in place until it can gently melt filling your rivers and streams. Stabilizing the soil around us which allows other plants and trees to live in our community. Feeding and giving protection to many animal and bird friends, as well as being nurseries for Lodgepole pines, Englemann spruce, and Subalpine firs. It is becoming too warm and staying warm for too long each season–I’m weakening and many of us are dying. I’m very worried–what will happen if we can no longer stand guard?
We do our jobs for humans quietly, consistently, and proudly. Humans must now do their job to save us–the dangers are real and getting worse! In the meantime, I stand tall, proud–and hopeful.
Let’s take a closer look at the amazing importance and struggle of the whitebark pine.
So what exactly does it mean to be a keystone species and a foundation species? A foundation species is one that has a strong if not primary role in structuring an ecosystem community. Whitebark pine are initial colonizers at high mountain elevations, particularly after fire or avalanche. They stabilize the ground and create “nurseries” where other plants and trees can get established and thrive.
A keystone species has a disproportionate impact on its environment relative to its abundance in the area. The whitebark pine plays a significant role in the biodiversity of the ecosystem. Without them the ecosystem would change drastically, perhaps cease to exist at all. In the harsh mountain conditions where they grow, whitebark pine provide nesting, shelter, and food for grizzly and black bears, Clark’s nutcracker, and many other small birds and mammals.
One such bird is the Red Crossbill, and yes, the ends of their bills do cross allowing them to get at seeds in tightly-closed conifer cones.
The whitebark pine lives in high mountain elevations where most of the snow falls. As a result of the shade provided by their large, wide crowns, they help reduce the snow melt lessening avalanche potential and soil erosion.
Whitebark pines protect our watersheds by regulating the run-off volume and timing of snow melt providing more water throughout the summer. Without them, we have faster snow melt in the mountains creating rapid runoff, increased erosion, summer drought, increased summer fire activity, all of which impact agriculture and our supply of drinking water. Over 33 million people in 16 states rely on these water feeds from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, so finding a way to help save the whitebark pine becomes critical.
The Clark’s nutcracker is fascinating, and its relationship to the whitebark pine is a wonderful example how intertwined all life is, not only in places we call wild, but in every corner of the earth. In this case, the seeds of the whitebark pine are not dispersed by the wind. The trees rely mainly on the Clark’s nutcracker to collect the seeds and bury them for regeneration. Each nutcracker collects tens of thousands of whitebark pine seeds by digging them out of the pine’s cones each summer into fall. The bird then buries them in small underground caches.
Laboratory studies have proven that nutcrackers have extraordinary memories and remember where most of their seeds are buried. These cashes supply them with food all winter. The seeds they don’t find or need germinate creating new forests. It is thought that this relationship is over a million years old, and over that time this interaction has resulted in the whitebark pine changing their seeds, their cones, and even the trees’ overall shape in comparison with other pine species whose seeds are dispersed by the wind.
Whitebark pine are dying due to the changes in our climate that allow two killers to flourish. You may have heard of the mountain pine beetle infestation. These beetles are native to this country, but the high temperatures and unusual precipitation patterns over the last 15 years has resulted in survival of pine beetles in the highest elevations attacking and killing whitebark pine in unprecedented numbers.
Whitebark pine is also highly vulnerable to white pine blister rust, an invasive fungi accidentally brought to North American from Asia around 1900. Studies have shown that only 28 percent of the species’ trees have genetic resistance to this disease. It is cold, dry temperatures that limit their growth or kill the fungi. With warmer winters, wetter conditions, and hotter summers, blister rust has become a serious high elevation problem.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that mortality of the whitebark pine due to the pine beetle and blister rust now exceeds 50% in northwestern U.S. and southwestern Canada. Currently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has classified the whitebark pine as a candidate for listing on the endangered species list.
I don’t usually offer such a distressing post and never bring politics in to exacerbate our despair, however, there are demands we can make of our elected officials and things we can do personally related to the issues stemming from changes to our climate.
Climate change is not looking at weather variations over a few years, but rather a long-term view (hundreds of years). Significant warming trends–warmer winters and hotter summers–began with the Industrial Revolution in the mid 1700s and are increasing more and more rapidly. CO² is one of many concerns impacting warming trends, and I don’t pretend to know how our political representatives can address this issue, but denying its existence is not the way.
The U.S. Navy researched climate change for 12 years due to the melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Their goal was to determine possible security threats in the Arctic, once covered with sea ice and unnavigable but now with much open water and very navigable. They determined that the climate is changing and as a result we should further explore possible threats to our national security. They also projected that sea ice would entirely disappear in the Arctic by 2020. Washington’s response to the Navy was threatening to cut their funding if they fostered the notion of climate change. Pretending there is no issue doesn’t make it disappear and is not what I want from political representatives. We need to demand more and better responses.
Conspiracy theories are not helpful either. Why waste time yelling louder than the “other side” just to argue and attempt to “win” with little other purpose? What we can do is seek out organizations that are trying to directly impact the serious problem of massive die-offs of whitebark pine. We can research more, donate, even volunteer to help organizations such as American Forests and Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.
You may have serious issues where you live, and once you uncover the problems, you will find organizations that attempt to intervene. Perhaps the local chapter of the Nature Conservancy or the Audubon Society. You may have other community or state-wide organizations that focus on preservation of your natural resources. Check it out.
I don’t tend to jump on bandwagons about issues, but I’m concerned because Yellowstone is changing. The native grasses are dying and being replaced with grasses that thrive in warmer climate. The problem is these new grasses are minimally nourishing for the elk, bison, and other wild animals grazing on them. We have less water in our rivers and disappearing streams in the summer even with average and above-average mountain snow mass in the winter. Our fire season is getting longer. We have always had our 90° summer days, but we now have more of them.
The Park Service is projecting that within 80 to 100 years, if climate change is not addressed, the primary landscape of Yellowstone, at all elevations, will be sagebrush. I want to do my part now so that our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have the forests, waterways, animals, and landscapes we so love and know as Yellowstone National Park. The entire ecosystem provides critical benefits, especially water, for a very large number of people living well beyond the borders of this wonderland making the changing climate an issue of concern for us all. What’s happening by you and how will you help?
Until our next walk . . .