Feds to consider endangered status for whitebark pine

Critical pine in grizzly nutrition is in steep decline. May get endangered listing-

Whitebark pine is in dire straights and it may well get on the endangered species list, but what then?  How do you save a tree so beset with disease and insect attacks with an ESA listing?

Story in the LA Times. Feds to consider endangered status for whitebark. By Mead Gruver. Associated Press Writer.

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I have been doing a lot of backcountry traveling this summer, and while I have written numerous posts about pine beetle attacks, not just the whitebark pine, almost all Western pines are in serious trouble, mostly from insect attacks. Winters too warm are causing vast proliferation of the pine bark beetle, killing pine forests, especially the much more abundant lodgepole pine from the Yukon south to New Mexico.  In some places like northern Colorado, 95% of the lodgepole is now dead.  It seems to me that it will be a short time until most pines will be functionally extinct, even though some may persist in highly protected enclosures.

Spruce, Douglas fir, true firs, and other conifers are not under such attack, but the lodgepole is a huge component of the fish, wildlife, watershed and scenery of the Rocky Mountains. Like the whitebark pine, it is hard to think of any effective large scale human effort to conserve these forests.

Bark beetle infested mountain at Lower Slide Lake, WY. Although the mountain looks fairly green, most of the lodgepole on it are turning red. In two or three years the entire character of the mountains will be changed. Copyright Ralph Maughan July 19, 2010


  1. timz Avatar

    I had to take down two trees on my property this spring, both at least 100 Ft tall, bug killed. I’m worried now I’ll lose them all eventually.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      It is very expensive and often not effective anyway as in your case, Timz.

      A friend near Stanley had most of his lodgepole cut to stop the beetles. Then he spent a lot of money putting pheromone traps on the remaining trees. This often saves them, but the more open forest on his property made the remaining trees prone to wind throw, and they blew over.

  2. Cody Coyote Avatar
    Cody Coyote

    There was a privately funded $ 150,000 aerial photo survey program which mapped every Whitebark Pine tree in the entire Greater Yellowstone ecosystem , down to sub-single tree resolution. This was done last year, and the results were supposed to be publically available early this year. The Natural Resources Defense Council office in Livingston MT sorta spearheaded this private survey. I haven’t seen these mapping and images yet , but they were the basis for making the case to USFWS and other agencies. I have some verbal informationon wha the survey showed, that not less than 45 percent of the WBP in the Shoshone Forest immediately east of Yellowstone in the Absarokas is already dead, and most of the remaining trees are well on their way to dying in the next year or two. Only a few percent of the WBP trees seem to have escaped the march of the beetles and the blister rust.

    But those healthy green trees are the ones whose seed cones that need to be harvested and replanted. We know where the stands of surviving green trees are , thanks to the aerial mapping which had some really tight GPS incorporated into it. It may be those trees have a genetic resistance to pathogens and bugs. If so , those genes need to be widely dispersed, and now. I already know some concerned people who are doing this on a backpack and waffle stomper level on their own .

    Some additional federal stimulus funds to pay for squads of cone harvesters and replanters seems like a very good idea for long term forest health , more so than some of these skewbald special interest ” healthy forest” initiatives and dubious below cost salvage logging sales at lower elevations nearer the highways. Nearly all the WBP is at or near timberline in wilderness where snowpack and permanent icefields are becoming more crucial resources with each passing year.

    I would like to see the various National Forests in the northern Rockies implement a hurry-up program to harvest and replant healthy WBP seed cones. Now that we have the aerial data and the urgency , there is no reason not to do this in the Shoshone, Bridger-Teton , Caribou-Targhee, and Gallatin-Custer forests…now, if not sooner.

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Cody Coyote,

    I would like to see the same done for healthy green pines of other species, standing amidst a dead forest.

    Harvest these cones because they might have some inborn genetic resistance.

    As an aside, several days ago I was traveling along the South Rim, south of Hoback Ranches. There (in Chall Creek) I saw lodgepole pine that had been cut and replanted with seeds from the Boise, Idaho, Forest Service nursery already falling victim tothe bark beetle. They were only 45 years old.

  4. Mike Avatar

    Nice pic, Ralph. Can’t wait to see Yellowstone in a few weeks.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar


      I have been putting a lot more photos up at:


  5. Whitney Avatar

    The Natural Resources Defense Council recently released the report that Cody Coyote mentioned, showing the results of a groundbreaking aerial survey of whitebark pine across the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The results are stunning: 95% of the whitebark forests in the ecosystem have been impacted by beetles to some extent, with 51% suffering high mortality and 35% experiencing medium mortality.

    NRDC’s press release about the report can be found here, with links to the full report, aerial photographs, and other resources: http://www.nrdc.org/media/2010/100722a.asp.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar


      Thank you.

      The huge die off of whitebark pine means that the grizzly carrying capacity of Yellowstone Park and the entire ecosystem has been reduced.

      While the official line is that grizzlies are showing up in new areas (such as the Wind River Mountains) because of an expanding population, an alternative hypothesis is that the same number of grizzlies are traveling more and moving outward to take advantage of nutritional resources in a landscape that is now less nutrient dense for bears.

      Movement of species of all kinds into new areas, and abandonment of old, results from changes in habitat. This should be expected and planned for.

  6. Id Hiker Avatar
    Id Hiker

    This is staggering news. Just to add some anecdotal observations… All of the White Bark Pines in the bowl below Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone (a popular hike) are dead – they were alive a few years ago. Driving into Yellowstone from Cody is a depressing experience – the hills are gray. A few years ago, an Asian Long Horn Beetle landed on my shirt in the parking lot of Old Faithful (Chicago cut down thousands of trees when they were noticed).

  7. Layton Avatar

    So IS there a solution?? Can chemicals (gasp) be used? If they can and aren’t is it because of current environmental restrictions?

    I’m ASKING, not trying to start a tempest in a teapot.

  8. timz Avatar

    Layton, I’ve checked and yes chemicals can be used but it would cost me at least $150 per tree, (I have dozens on my few acres) and results with their use are not guaranteed.

  9. Louisa Willcox Avatar
    Louisa Willcox


    You’re right on in your predictions of what we can expect in terms of predicted grizzly bear movements and potential conflicts. Certainly grizzlies are going to have to redistribute themselves around the landscape, to compensate for the loss of such critical food source as whitebark pine. As you know, whitebark pine is the most important food source for the population of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies, driving successful reproduction of females (females produce larger litters after good whitebark pine seed years), and reducing human-caused mortalities, by keeping grizzlies up in the high country. Without this critical food source, combined with the loss of cutthroat trout, one of the other four key Yellowstone grizzly food sources, we can expect to see grizzlies increasingly on the fringe, giving some people the misunderstanding that we have an increasing, over-abundance of bears—while what they are seeing are just more displaced bears.

    I think it is critical that we all push hard, especially since the grizzly is now relisted under the Endangered Species act, to put more resources into conflict resolution efforts, such as garbage proofing and working with the hunting community to reduce elk hunting-related mortalities. Proportionally, over the last 10 years, hunting mortalities have increased relative to other sources of bear mortalities. This makes sense, since grizzlies at high elevations have one good alternative high-fat food source in the fall: elk. The problem with elk, or course, is they’re often connected to hunters with guns.

    At the same time, it’s time to redouble our efforts on the whitebark pine front. This summer, as Whitney posted yesterday, we are pursuing a Citizen Science effort, to gauge the ecological consequences of the loss of whitebark pine.

    Please let us know if you want to be a part of this effort, which is gearing up toward the end of this summer and September! Also, we need to evaluate what tools and programs might make the most sense, given the rapid pace of loss of whitebark. Although there has been considerable effort to look for blister-rust resistant trees, and collect cones from them, similar work has not been done to look for or collect cones from possible chemically resistant trees. That’s because there hasn’t been much chemical resistance seen in whitebark pine: but recently several researchers have found a fewchemically resistant trees. These are trees that have physical and/or chemical responses to fight off beetles. While these chemically resistant trees may be few in number, they ultimately may be critical in terms of the long-term restoration of whitebark.

    Ultimately, of course, all of these steps just buy time to address the severe climate change problems that we face. We desperately need a comprehensive approach to climate change, or we will simply see more and more of our pine species dead and dying, and along with the irreplaceable ecosystems they represent.

    Hope this helps. Onward for the fight of forest ecosystems!

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      Louisa Willcox has commented here before.


      I hope everyone interested in bears will read her comments.


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Ralph Maughan