What Does Climate Change in Yellowstone Look Like? (Photo Essay)

I recently flew over a chunk of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in a small helicopter.  It was a wild, stunning, heartbreaking flight. 

I had a golden eagle’s view of the dead and dying whitebark pine forests in the Greater Yellowstone.  To see the devastation of high-elevation forest after high-elevation forest was disturbing, especially because we’re to blame, as the true killer of these magnificent trees is climate change. 

With warmer winter temperatures, mountain pine beetles are surviving at higher elevations because the requisite prolonged cold snaps needed to kill the beetles are not happening.  And the beetles are feasting on – and decimating – whitebark pine trees.

A non-native fungus, white pine blister rust, is also wreaking havoc on whitebark.

Whitebark pines are the bad asses of the sub-alpine plant community.  They eke out a living in a harsh, windy, cold, relentless landscape.  They’re a foundation species, as they’re often the first tree to inhabit an area after a forest disturbance.  They’re also a nurse tree, as their pioneering of a new area allows other trees to then take root there.  And they’re a keystone species, as they significantly affect the entire ecosystem.  Whitebark pines stabilize the soil, shade snowpack into the summer (which helps provide desperately needed water late in the summer when our streams and rivers need it most), and their nutritious seeds are a critical food source for Clark’s nutcracker birds, red squirrels, and grizzly bears.

In fact, the loss of whitebark pine seeds as a food source for Yellowstone grizzlies will be calamitous for the iconic bears.  Without whitebark pine seeds, the bears won’t be trekking through the high country to gorge on whitebark seeds in the late summer and fall.  Instead, they’ll be forced to search for replacement foods at lower elevations, where they’re more likely to bump into us – and thus more likely to get killed.

NRDC submitted a petition in December 2008 to list whitebark pine as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.  In July of this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service made an initial finding that endangered species protection for whitebark pine “may be warranted.”  The Service is now engaged in a more thorough review. 

As my helicopter flight vividly showed me, whitebark pine is in serious trouble.  Endangered Species Act protection – and the funding, research, and critical habitat designations that accompany it – are desperately needed. 

See for yourself.

1.jpg

(A dead whitebark forest in the Gallatin Mountains in Montana.  Whitebark turn red when dying and gray when dead.  Most of the green trees are spruce, lodgepole pine, or fir.)

2.jpg

(This is the Northern Rockies, not New England.  These are not deciduous trees that turn red, orange, and yellow in the fall.  All of these trees should be green -- hence the reason we call them "evergreens," as Aldo Leopold pointed out.)

3.jpg

(Whitebark pines are shaped like ice cream cones with broad canopies, while lodgepole, spruce, and fir look more like asparagus spears or traditional christmas trees.) 

4.jpg

(Dead and dying whitebark pines.)

5.jpg

(More of the same.)

6.jpg

(Electric Peak in Yellowstone National Park.  Note the nuked (gray) whitebark forest at the base of the mountain.) 

7.jpg

(Improvised helipad in the Gallatin Canyon.  Coolest.  Lunch stop.  Ever.  (Sorry -- I had to include this one.)) 

8.jpg

(More nuked whitebark.) 

9.jpg

 (An eerie photo of dead whitebark pines.)

10.jpg

(An unfortunate mosaic of red and gray.) 

11.jpg

 (Dead whitebark now inhabit this basin.  What will that mean for grizzlies, Clark's nutcrackers, and red squirrels?  What about snowpack?)

12.jpg

(Look in the lower right corner of the picture.  That's a mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) high in the Madison Mountains in Montana.  You don't see them every day.)

13.jpg

(What more can I write?  Endangered Species Act protection is needed for whitebark pine.  Now.)

About the Authors

Matt Skoglund

Director, Northern Rockies office

Join Us