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Greater Yellowstone is one of the last great intact American ecosystems. In the region today, you can still see every species of plant and animal that Lewis and Clark documented on their expedition – including some of the same whitebark pine trees the legendary explorers saw.

Whitebark pines provide food and shelter for grizzlies, birds, and other animals where few other trees can survive. But these hardy trees are being killed off by a recent rush of mountain pine beetle infestations, brought on by global warming. The tree’s alarming decline in the Greater Yellowstone region, where formerly evergreen mountainsides are turning red and gray with dead and dying pines, has sparked a citizen campaign to collect much-needed data on whitebark pine mortality.

The Whitebark Pine Citizen Scientists Network, sponsored by NRDC and TreeFight.org, is a group of people who are deeply concerned about the future of Greater Yellowstone. In particular, the network is interested in documenting whitebark pine mortality and its impacts across this charismatic landscape. Citizen scientists observe, document, and report both mountain pine beetle activity and wildlife activity they see in whitebark forests across the region. Even without formal scientific training, participants provide valuable observations that can be compiled to form a cohesive body of information.

The history of citizen science includes centuries-old scientific societies in Europe and continues today with projects such as the popular Audubon Christmas bird count. The epidemic of mountain pine beetle-caused mortality in whitebark pine trees is a perfect fit for citizen science because it is taking place on a broad scale–a problem more easily tackled by a network of citizen scientists across the region than by a small core of researchers—and because its visibility and its ecological implications have captured the imagination of many who live near areas where whitebark pine grows.

Past Work

During the summers of 2008 and 2009, our citizen science network focused on documenting where and to what extent mountain pine beetles were killing whitebark pine in Greater Yellowstone. In doing so, participants helped “ground-truth” the data from aerial photographs, adding another layer of detail to the landscape assessment study. Volunteers from across the region, many of whom regularly work or recreate in whitebark habitat, contributed to this project and helped build a database of observations.

Ongoing Research

Researchers now have reliable landscape-scale data on whitebark pine mortality in Greater Yellowstone, so citizen science efforts for the next few summers will turn toward evaluating the ecological implications of this widespread mountain pine beetle-caused mortality. As trees die, how quickly do forests stop performing their ecological roles—providing food, shelter and shade? And what, if anything, can we do to respond adaptively and effectively to the problem?

A network of citizen scientists, including many who have collected observations for this project in past years, will follow a set of simple guidelines to collect data that may help answer these questions. Citizen scientists will help track indicators like the abundance of Clark’s nutcrackers, red squirrel cone caches, and signs of grizzly bear activity, to assess the extent to which these forests are still functioning as providers of food and shelter for these important animal species. The scientific study is designed, implemented, and overseen by capable researchers. Trained citizen scientists will help collect field data in a number of areas with varying levels of whitebark pine mortality.

Citizen scientists will also continue to ground-truth the results of aerial surveys, submitting observations and photographs of the whitebark pine forests they visit. Not only will this project help citizens connect with the landscapes they treasure, it will provide valuable data regarding ecological thresholds in whitebark pine forests, which will extend our knowledge base and will help formulate recommendations for managers to focus their conservation and restoration efforts.

Get Involved

whitebark pine cones

photo: Josh Mogerman Whitebark pine cones.

The network is always looking for volunteers who want to get outside and help with this project. If you find yourself in an area where whitebark grows, you can help by:

  • Taking photographs of whitebark pine on the landscape, and recording the location where the photograph was taken.
  • Recording written observations of the whitebark pine you see.
  • Counting Clark’s nutcrackers and red squirrels, and recording any observations of bear signs in whitebark forests.

Contact Whitney Leonard (wleonard@nrdc.org) or Wally MacFarlane (wally@geograph.com) for more information about how to get involved.

last revised 12/7/2010

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