The whitebark is the keystone of the Yellowstone ecosystem, they say, and their flights over this South Carolina-size mountain region have shown them that nearly every stand of these trees is afflicted by the mountain pine beetle. Until a decade or so ago, the bugs were an anomaly at 10,000 feet because they couldn't bear the cold.
That cold is less reliable now.
"The joker in the deck is climate change," says Jesse Logan, retired U.S. Forest Service entomologist and fly fisherman. He now spends summers working at a fly shop on the Yellowstone River and winters skiing among the remaining whitebarks. The rest of the time, he tries to convince the world that a collapse is happening here and that it matters. "We're in for a serious ecological crunch."
Logan is one of a tight band of self-proclaimed "whitebark warriors" laboring against increasingly long odds to save centuries-old trees. He recalls the scorn from Forest Service colleagues who told him to find more useful research projects when, in the 1990s, his models predicted that pine beetles would climb the mountains to take out this old-growth forest. The models also predicted a northward beetle invasion into Canada's boreal forest.
So far, he's been sadly right. After all, these are the mountains he loves, and the wind-twisted whitebarks atop them are the first defenses for the streams he loves below. They shade snow and trap moisture so that it slowly percolates toward the valleys through summer. They keep water temperatures ideal for trout and ensure water is available for farmers.
With him in the Winds are two other warriors: Wally Macfarlane, a Utah State University watershed researcher, and David Gonzalez, a Jackson Hole, Wyo., activist whose TreeFight group plants young whitebarks and protects old trees with synthetic anti-beetle pheromones. The fourth man is Adam Markham, Connecticut-based president of the climate-policy group Clean Air-Cool Planet. He had heard Logan speak about the devastation from beetles and wanted to learn more.
"If you can bear witness to the impacts, you can get your message across," he says. "It's a really important story, and no one's talking about it."
The four spend an afternoon surveying one of the West's few healthy whitebark forests, but they notice new splotches of red-needled trees evidence that the beetle is starting to kill even here, where cold winds off nearby glaciers have at least slowed the insect's advance. The warriors vent before heading to their tents about Americans' appetites for living large and ignoring the consequences, and about a global problem making their local efforts feel futile.
But Gonzalez offers some happy words to sleep on. He has just spent a season bringing hundreds of young people into the woods to plant 2,000 seedlings and 800 seeds. These kids know their own connections to the wild world, he says, and they teach their parents.
Plus, they give the forest a chance.
"It's pretty cool," Gonzalez says, "to plant a tree that could live there for 1,000 years."
The question is whether the trees will, or can.
Logan fears that except in a few colder and isolated places maybe the high peaks ringing Yellowstone National Park's northeast entrance beetles that didn't live in the mountains before will now hang on. Cold snaps of minus-40, once common in these parts, now can take years to recur. Entomologists here and in Canada ominously have found that two relatively comfortable winters in a row can swell a beetle outbreak.
"As long as the climate keeps warming," Logan says, "there's no place in whitebark pine range that's [safe]."
Tracking the damage
In daylight, Blue Ridge is a roiling sea of these flat-topped evergreens, their limbs extending upward to set a table of seeds for birds to distribute. Tan grass patches and gray boulder spires break up the green. Macfarlane snaps photos from each peak to compare with those taken last year. The latest forest shots will look different, redder.
"The more I've looked around today," he says, "the more and more I'm getting frightened about what will happen here."
Still, the forest's relative health here remains in black-and-white contrast from elsewhere in the Yellowstone area. Jackson Hole, for instance, is bounded on the east by slopes of gray whitebarks whose red needles have fallen after beetles cut their circulation.
On Blue Ridge, squirrels have left behind evidence of a mad summer party. Soft, pockmarked soil beneath the trees reveal where the animals have dug middens to stash cones for winter, then scurried up trunks to drop them in before birds could crack open the seeds. Bear scat marks where an intruder spoiled a squirrel's plans.
Elsewhere around Yellowstone, Macfarlane measures squirrel middens by the number of backpacks it would take to cover them; here they're either single-wide or double-wide trailers.
This is a place of hope for the region's natural systems. But these surveyors argue the government must do more to protect the trees, starting with monitoring their loss.
The Greater Yellowstone Whitebark Pine Monitoring Working Group, an interagency team, set up 176 33-by-164-foot plots in 2004 to watch for tree deaths. Members tagged trees taller than 4½ feet and returned in four years to see what became of them. Initial results: 80 percent of the trees survived four years, but only 36 percent of the bigger cone producers did.
Logan and Macfarlane worry the damage is worse than first reported and that the government team's methods are flawed. They say those plots are too few for a true landscape picture and that they were set up to detect blister rust, an imported tree fungus, and not tailored to beetles.
With about $150,000 in government and Natural Resources Defense Council grants, Logan and Macfarlane arranged private aerial surveys for a 2009 report showing greater mortality up to 95 percent of the seed producers in some drainages.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used the working group's lower numbers in reports proposing to remove the Yellowstone grizzly's protected status a move blocked by a federal judge last year because of the whitebark's uncertain future.
"I can't imagine being blinder to available science," Logan says.
From her National Park Service office in Bozeman, Mont., Greater Yellowstone Network Program Manager Kristin Legg defends her working group's surveys, saying the 176 transects are enough. Besides, she says, the results aren't so different from those of Logan and Macfarlane. Looking from the air, she says, they would have noticed a largely dead canopy mortality in most big seed producers without seeing healthier trees underneath.
"We might have a conservative estimate," she concedes, "but it's consistent in that large trees are dying."
Blue Ridge is, so far, the exception. The whitebark warriors will be back the same time next year to see if it remains so.