The horse is out of the barn - Part 1

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Posted by Ballpark Frank ( on 13:28:44 06/30/13

In Reply to: appearances posted by Hoot


Here's a few more thoughts regarding the significance of whitebark pines in Greater Yellowstone grizzly demographics.

Whitebark pines are "on the ropes". As far back as 10 or 15 years ago, certain learned people, if you could get them alone, one on one, in the back of the room, or out in the corridor, would admit that the future of whitebark pines in Greater Yellowstone was dismal at best. After all, it wasn't until 1988 and beyond that we humans really got a handle on the historic role of wildfire in Greater Yellowstone. That's when fire ecology people started intensively studying the historical record written in the forest, and realized that the area was swept by major fire events "regularly", at two to three hundred year intervals. (Believe it or not, my son and I, out hiking off-trail, in the lodgepole pine forest east of Midway Geyser Basin, in August of 1988, were finding sparse, sporadic evidence of a fire in that area probably 100 to 200 years earlier.) One only has to look at Mt. Washburn to see what can happen to a whitebark pine forest when fire is "in the house".

With global warming (a statistical FACT, regardless of arguments about what is causing it), the elevational niche for whitebark pines is slowly raising. Unfortunately for whitebark pines, there isn't prime real estate to relocate up to in Greater Yellowstone. Of course, this is compounded by the increasing occurrence of major wildfires in the Rockies. I would call it "sitting duck syndrome"!

Now, if I were some sort of anti-whitebark pine villain in a 1920s black and white movie, I would deliver the coup de gras by introducing an ongoing, long term invasion of blister rust, AND a concurrent plague of mountain pine beetles. Lodgepole pines co-evolved with the beetles, thus have a way to deal with the little bugs, i.e. thick gooey sap that envelops the creeps, as well as an odor the bugs find offensive. Whitebark pines did not experience a similar co-evolution, thus are "sitting ducks".

If this were a boxing ring or a horse track, whitebark pine survivability in Greater Yellowstone would be a real long shot.

If you do a little web research on whitebark pines, Louisa Wilcox will show up. Louisa has been a champion of the Yellowstone grizzly for many decades. At one time, she was with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. These days, she is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. I compare her to Mary Meagher, the renowned Yellowstone bison researcher. Mary hatched the idea that plowing roads in the park (even the plowing/packing operations supporting over-snow vehicle use) were contributing to the bison problem outside the park, by offering bison an easy exit route. I have offered my candid opinion on this theory more than once on these pages; and it is based on many years of observing those critters in winter. Louisa loves grizzly bears, and I suspect the thought of them being hunted in Greater Yellowstone makes her shudder. Don't underestimate the influence Louisa has had on the stalling of grizzly de-listing.

Back in the early to mid-1980s, I was a volunteer photographer and naturalist at Rocky Mountain National Park. I created and delivered interpretive slide programs in the campground amphitheaters in the summer. In winter, I did the same with programs on Yellowstone, in the headquarters auditorium. These were the early days of grizzly listing, and it appeared that the Yellowstone grizzly might be as much on the ropes as the whitebark pine appears to be now. I challenged attendees to consider the plight of the Yellowstone grizzly, and ponder what their ultimate fate might be. This was an era when some scientists were talking about the grizzly population fast approaching a time where the gene pool would be so finite, that the long term viability would be threatened. There was talk of bringing in additional griz from Alaska or Canada to add diversity to the gene pool. I remember suggesting that one of the many conceivable futures for grizzlies in the Northern Rockies was one in which the species was extinct in that geography. The newly formed Greater Yellowstone Coalition was spreading alarmist news of how human development was encroaching on grizzly habitat. These were the days when grizzly fans were campaigning against the development of Ski Yellowstone, northwest of the park, and the Crown Butte Mine above Cooke City, among other perceived threats.

To be continued in Part 2

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