Barking up the Endangered Tree

It’s a cool July morning, and I’m hovering outside Pearl St. Bagels in Wilson, Wyoming when a guy in an authentic samurai suit saunters up.

Over the last twenty minutes, a fuzzy group of outdoorsy types has slowly assembled, clad in cut-off shorts and softshell jackets with daypacks and coffee mugs in tow, and the divergent newcomer is greeted with a mixture of muted giggles and wide-eyed confusion.

At first glance, the coffee-chugging, bleary-eyed congregation looks more like a group of friends ready to head out climbing or backcountry skiing, but the nonchalant vibe belies the mission at hand. The folks gathered here (samurai included) are skiers, climbers, and assorted lovers of the outdoors, but today’s schedule doesn’t include powder, warm rock, or the promise of biting trout. This rough assemblage is TreeFight, and we’ve come to help protect the whitebark pine of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from total devastation by the mountain pine beetle.

Interpreting the what-the-hell stares coming from nearly everyone, the stranger finally introduces himself as Ed. “I heard there was a fight,” he says.

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Led in part by local writer, filmmaker, and photographer David Gonzalez, TreeFight began as an idea for a short film after a friend pointed out large stands of dead trees on the high slopes of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Gonzalez dove head first into the subject, devouring any information he could find and partnering with scientists who shared his fears—that the loss of the whitebark in the greater Yellowstone area could have drastic and possibly devastating effects on everything from wildlife to snowmelt.

Gonzalez talks about the whitebarks with the subdued reverence of any passionate activist, calling the trees ‘magical,’ and admitting to his recent obsession with photographing them at every opportunity.

Also along for the fight is Nancy Bockino, the head ecologist for Grand Teton National Park and Gonzalez’s scientific counterpart. While Gonzalez organizes, promotes, and documents, Bockino provides her expertise gleaned from years of studying and combating the beetle’s effects—during the summer months, she hikes the park nearly every day to survey and mitigate the insect’s effects.

I’ve come to Jackson to see for myself what’s happening to the whitebark pines that Gonzalez speaks so passionately about, and to see whether I, or anyone for that matter, can help do something about it.

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The pine beetle epidemic that’s been sweeping the Western U.S. and Canada for nearly the last decade is old news. Dendroctonus ponderosae, more commonly known as the mountain pine beetle, is a native insect the size of grain of rice that attacks a tree in large numbers, tunnels into the bark, and kills the tree from within. Beetle outbreaks have occurred on smaller scales in the ‘30s and the ‘70s, usually lasting around three years, and traditionally, most of the beetles are seasonally killed by long spells of sub-zero temperatures. But through warmer winters and recent drought cycles, directly attributed by many to climate change, this genocidal pest has been reproducing, and killing, in unprecedented numbers—approximately 10 million acres of lodgepole and ponderosa pine have fallen victim in Colorado alone, and forecasts remain grim throughout the West.

But unlike lodgepoles and ponderosas, which usually reside in heavily forested, lower-elevation areas and tend to regenerate (relatively) quickly, the whitebark pine occupies some of the harshest, most exposed terrain in the mountain landscape (often above 8,500 feet) and can live up to 1,500 years. Now, as the climate continues to warm, the beetles are able to head higher and attack the less numerous and more critical whitebarks with equal fervor. Around half of the whitebark pines in the US are found within the 22-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and recent estimates peg up to 40 percent of those as already under attack by the pine beetle.

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In the trailhead parking lot at Teton Pass, we shoulder our packs and make sure all the necessary battle tools are accounted for.

“Did you bring the hatchet?” Gonazalez asks.

“No, I think I left it in my office,” Bockino says.

Gonzalez scratches his head and shrugs. “Well, we do have a samurai sword.”

The group’s harem of dogs grows by the minute, and it’s a full-blown pack by the time we hit the trail. Lingering rain clouds hover over the Jackson valley as we quietly make our way up through the swaths of yellow, pink and purple wildflowers. In winter, Teton Pass is home to some of the West’s most easily accessible backcountry ski turns. But in the mid to late summer, it’s a prime battleground for protecting the whitebark pine against beetle infestation.

For now, the TreeFighter’s weapon of choice against the pine beetle is verbenone. When a tree has reached optimal beetle density, the bugs emit a pheromone that essentially tells those shopping for a new home that there’s no vacancy. Verbenone is a natural organic compound that mimics this pheremone, and a packet of it stapled to a live, healthy tree will ideally tell the beetles to keep moving, saving it from the certain death that accompanies the determined insects.

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Midway up the slope, Gonazalez and Bockino hunch next to a tree that appears to be green and healthy, and Gonzalez carefully shaves away the outer layer of bark with a hatchet. The wood hasn’t been stained blue from the outside, and he hesitates to probe further. But closer inspection reveals a more grim prognosis. We find dozens of beetles in the bark, and the tree is absolutely littered with pitch tubes, rust-colored sap blobs that are the first indication that a tree has fallen prey to the beetle.

Bockino drops the chunk of bark like a doctor who’s just lost a patient on the operating table. “Yea, it’s a goner.” I half expect her to say “we did everything we could…,” but she’s already back on the trail.

As we crest the summit of Mt. Glory, our view is simultaneously overtaken by the jagged, snowy panorama of the Tetons, and much closer, large red slashes of whitebark pines that have succumbed to the beetle’s voracious appetite. The contrast is impossible to ignore.

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Whitebarks can and do grow at lower elevations, but are often in competition with other faster-growing species for nutrients and sunlight—not good for a tree that can take up to ten years just for its seeds to germinate. But at altitude, their hardy nature thrives in the thin, rocky and exposed soil where other trees can’t survive.

Their long lifespan and utility to the ecosystem—mainly through their highly nutritious seed cones—are what set them apart from other species of pine, and why Gonzalez feels that the whitebarks are worth the effort to protect.

“A 120-year-old lodgepole is huge and old,” Gonzalez says. “A 120-year-old whitebark is just getting started.”

The whitebarks seeds contain around 56% percent fat, making them an essential source of nutrients to species like the grizzly bear, who consume mass quantities of them in the fall to fatten up before hibernation. Grizzly bear researchers worry that a decrease in available whitebark seeds will lead the bears to lower elevations in search of food, and inevitably increasing human encounters.

And in a puzzling twist of evolution, the whitebark has come to rely solely on one species, the Clark’s Nutcracker, to pick and distribute its seeds. The tree’s flared canopy and cones that are located at the very top also evolved to facilitate the process. No one is certain how this all-the-eggs-in-one-basket strategy came about, but the whitebark isn’t the only source of food for the Nutcracker, and some scientists fear that if whitebarks become too scarce, the bird will abandon the tree for more convenient and readily available sustenance, and effectively render the whitebark infertile.

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The next day, after weeks of non-stop scouting, organizing, editing, and promoting for TreeFight, Gonzalez needs a break, so we go climbing at the Rock Spring Buttress. This hulking granite cliff sits high above Jackson Hole Ski Resort, and ironically enough, is where Gonzalez was headed when he first learned about the whitebarks a year ago.  As we wander up the steep climber’s trail, through dense underbrush still damp from last night’s rain, fresh storm clouds begin to roil over the Tetons, and Gonzalez periodically gives a pensive look back down the valley. “I don’t know, we might get stormed out,” he says. “But you gotta at least go up there and give it a shot, right?”

I think he feels the same way about the trees.

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