Dubois–My husband Tory Taylor and I have been riding horseback around northwest Wyoming for more than 35 years. We outfitted wilderness pack trips into the Washakie and Fitzpatrick wilderness areas out of Dubois searching for the perfect camp near a tranquil trout stream, elk meadow or bighorn sheep cliff. During that time we’ve seen a lot of changes along the trail and around our home in the upper Wind River Valley. Perhaps no change has been so widespread and ominous as the devastation of the ancient whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) forests by the pine bark beetle (Dendroctonus pondersoae). During the past decade, the pine bark beetle and accompanying blister rust have swept into Wyoming like a slow-moving northern storm.
Tory first rode horseback through Wyoming in the early 1970s from Colorado and landed in Dubois. We met in 1975 when I came to the Wind River Valley to study bighorn sheep. One of the special places we explored together was the spectacular Dunoir Valley in Yellowstone. The Dunoir –a French derivative meaning a dark timbered area – was so beautiful, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Thick, old growth forests surrounding luxurious meadows with grass so deep you just wanted to lie down in this green heavenly bed. Thousands of elk migrated through, sometimes calving en route to the high country of the Yellowstone Plateau. In his 19th Century Journal of a Trapper mountain man Osborne Russell wrote about this high country after he saw thousands of bighorn above the whitebark pine forest tree line. That was before domestic sheep introduced pneumonia and other diseases. The Dunoir had been one of the last healthy forests and migrating wildlife, but the bighorn sheep still haven’t recovered from the domestic sheep diseases. The Dunoir is where the Washakie wolf pack set up a den site after they were recovered to Yellowstone in 1995. At the time, the forest is so dark and dense there that the wolf researchers couldn’t see the wolf pack or den site, but knew they were there from their radio collars’ signal. We call that wild.
Recently we rode into another of our favorite high country places in the Wind River Range in the shadow of Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s highest mountain at 13,804. I recall how pristine this Fitzpatrick Wilderness looked through my young, naive eyes so long ago when Tory and I first met. The spine of the Continental Divide shone with the bright snow and ice of the largest glacier complex in the continental United States. Dark green whitebark pine forests glistened with shiny purple cone clusters across the flanks of the mountains to almost 11,000 feet. Lupine, paintbrush and columbine put on a special show that year from the banks of the milky glacial streams. Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) chattered as they gathered pine cones in their mountainous middens that were routinely raided by the ever-hungry grizzly (Ursus arctos) and black bears (Ursus americanus). Clark’s Nutcrackers (Nucifraga columbiana) noisily scolded the squirrels to leave some cones for them. Life was good without a care in the world in the forest primeval… or so it seemed.
Now almost four decades later, we see pine bark beetle damage to the high altitude whitebark forests and wonder if this is the beginning of the end of these forest habitats as we know them. Sometimes change is subtle. We first saw the pine trees begin dying in the Dunoir Valley about 10 years ago as the insects and disease crept south into Yellowstone. Then, a few years later the whitebark pine started dying on Togwotee Pass. After many of the whitebark pine trees had died on the Togwotee, I ran into fresh grizzly bear tracks in November and December while cross country skiing in the early snow. I wondered if the bear was lingering outside the den site to fatten up before hibernation because it was still hungry for food to replace the whitebark pine nuts. Indeed, this year state and federal researchers have warned recreationists and hunters that without whitebark pine nuts, the bears are hungry and people should take extra precaution. The die-off has brought a significant shift in grizzly bear behavior. The bears are now much more abundant in the Winds than we have ever seen them. Perhaps they are moving south to beat the die-off or because the young trees that seem to be resistant to the pinebark beetle are recruited to produce cones and carry the bears through. But this year will be a bust for whitebark pine nut-dependent species in the Winds, as there are very few cone-bearing trees. Perhaps the bears are adapting to other food sources, but U.S. Geological Survey research wildlife biologist Dave Mattson has reported relationship between abundant pine nuts and bear conflicts. Good pine cone years keep the bears busy harvesting their fall food, while poor years leave the bears hungry in search of food that sometimes leads them to campgrounds and dumpsters. One wonders if the grizzly bear sow with three cubs who ate the Cooke City camper last month was so thin because of this poor whitebark pine cone year.
Some scientists claim that climate change has a role in the whitebark pine die-off because the recent trend of warmer winters haven’t killed the pine bark beetle eggs and larvae the way that historically colder winters did. As a result, the majority of the larvae (and even some adults) survive the winters nestled in the cambium below the bark. Some even have two hatches in the summer. Climate change has been shown to disrupt the seed-dispersal symbiosis and increase the extinction rate for plant and animal species. Whitebark pine with their large seeds are a keystone subalpine species that depends upon the Clark’s Nutcracker for seed dispersal. Once the symbiotic balance is disrupted, the Clark’s nutcrackers, grizzly and black bears and red squirrels must look elsewhere to replace this major food source. Adding to the problem, white pine blister rust fungus (Conartium ribicola) reduces the production of whitebark pine cone by killing as many as 90 percent of the cone-bearing branches on trees throughout the high altitude forests in the Northern Rocky Mountains. No wonder conservationists and biologists are considering listing the Whitebark pine under the Endangered Species Act
I remember our old friend Joe Back’s stories about outfitting in the Dunoir and Buffalo Fork. He recalled the antics of bears in his book Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails about what he called “the good ol’ days”. Almost a century ago, the Swedish loggers cut trees in the heavy dark timber of the Dunoir Valley, but they left the majestic whitebark pines near the tree line. Now, three decades later on our pack trips to the Dunoir, it breaks my heart to see these millennium trees dead with red pine needles. Once we see those larvae tubes emerge through the bark, the tree is standing dead the needles may still be green. The needles become red within the year as the tree dies and the following year leave skeletons of gray branches against the bluebird sky. Such massive die-offs dwarf even the 1988 Yellowstone fire destruction. Now, there are major drainages of these ghost forests throughout the region. About 40 percent of Yellowstone National Park affected by 1988 fires. But at least that burn has regenerated fairly quickly and is teaching us about the benefits of fire ecology. I wonder if these dying forests will burn and regenerate as well. If so, will it be in our lifetime?
Coincidentally, over the past decade, we have been researching the high altitude archaeology of northwestern Wyoming in the same areas as the Whitebark pine die-off. These early prehistoric people called Mountain Shoshone or SheepEaters took advantage of the whitebark pine as well by harvesting the high protein/high fat pine nuts as a part of their omnivorous diet. Artifacts such as manos and metates used as grinding stones tell us that they probably ground the pine nuts into a meal that may have been used as a type of pemmican with dried meat and fruit. In Campfire discussions we wonder if this type of forest die-off happened when prehistoric people lived here thousands of years ago or if this is the first major catastrophic crash of whitebark pine.
For us, life on the ground has changed in these magical wilderness areas as this place we call home turn from green to red to gray to black. Camping in the ghost trees of these ancient forests now means that even in the most heavily used campsites where we used to scavenge long distances for firewood there is plenty now because so many of the trees are dead. In fact, foresters are increasing the number of salvage timber sales to clean the dead trees out of the forests and away from homes built adjacent to our national forests.
As I reflect on the changing forest around Greater Yellowstone and Wyoming during the past four decades, I sometimes feel helpless to do anything to stop the relentless process. We read the research reports to see how bad it actually is beyond the view from the Wind River Valley. The 2010 Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team’s Whitebark Pine Cone Project Summary found total mortality on 72.6 percent of the trees counted and 94.7 percent of the transects contain beetle-killed trees in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The mean number of cones per tree is only 5.2. What are the Whitebark pine-dependent animals eating now? Will they survive the winter? No one seems to know what the collapse of the Whitebark pine forest ecosystem will mean on a larger scale.
We still care about this special place we call home, so we volunteer to gather data for researchers in hopes that our small contribution will help provide information on the flora and fauna affected by the pine bark beetle epidemic. Volunteers and researchers are involved in assessing the ecological impact assessment with data gathered from both aerial surveys and ground work to measure the effects of the die-off as well as the recruitment of young seedlings. But is this anymore than just documenting the demise of the forests?