A Training Day With The Whitebark Pine Aerial Assessment Team

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Due to warmer temperatures, mountain pine beetles are devastating whitebark pine trees in the Northern Rockies.  Whitebark pine is a keystone species, its seeds are a critical food source for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), and the disappearance of whitebark pine from the GYE will have catastrophic consequences for GYE grizzlies. 

That we know. 

What we don't know is how severe the whitebark death in the GYE is.  And that's about to change. 

NRDC is collaborating with some whitebark experts to aerially assess the whitebark devastation in the GYE and learn just how bad it really is.  No one knows, which is why the U.S. Forest Service is funding our project.

Leading the project are Dr. Jesse Logan, distinguished entomologist and former head of the beetle research unit for the United States Forest Service at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Logan, Utah, Wally Macfarlane, skilled geographer and an expert in the use of GIS and digital photogrammetry, and talented EcoFlight pilot Bruce Gordon.  The project's staffers are expert kayaker and adventurer Willie Kern and college students Dena Adler and Colin Peacock.  They are all Whitebark Warriors.

This summer, the team will fly several flight lines over the entire GYE.  A camera person will be on each side of the plane taking photographs at evenly spaced intervals, and GPS points will track the photographs.  Each photograph will be classified from 0 to 5, depending on the beetle damage to the whitebark pines in the photo (with 0 being a healthy whitebark forest and 5 a dead whitebark forest).  The end result will be a categorized photographic map of the status of whitebark pine in the GYE. 

The project is ingenious, detailed, and demanding.

Last week, Jesse and Wally led the team through a three-day seminar in Montana's Paradise Valley.  The team's spiritual leader, my friend and NRDC colleague Louisa Willcox, and I joined them for a day of training.

We spent the morning going over the many pieces of equipment involved and discussing the classification scheme and general protocol of the project.  The rest of the day was spent in the field, where we tested the equipment, walked through the protocol, and collectively calibrated the classification scheme.

We hiked above treeline in the Gallatin Mountains and climbed Packsaddle Peak, which is just north of Yellowstone National Park.  From Packsaddle's summit, we had awesome views of whitebark in every direction.  And hiking to and from Packsaddle, we stopped to investigate several individual trees.   

We were hiking through a morgue, and it was shocking, especially for Louisa, who had hiked through the same area just a couple of years ago and not seen damage even remotely close to what we saw.  She seemed dumbfounded and exasperated by the recent destruction. 

The scale and speed of beetle-killed whitebark in the GYE are astounding, which is why this project is so vitally important.  

Fortunately, we have a brilliant team in the sky and the U.S. Forest Service's backing on the ground.  Time, unfortunately, we don't have.

Whitebark Warriors, thank you for a devastatingly wonderful day, and good luck this summer. 

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(For more information on whitebark pine, grizzlies, and global warming, see here, here, and here.)

About the Authors

Matt Skoglund

Director, Northern Rockies office

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