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Yellowstone gravestone: Here lies the whitebark pine ...
The trees' demise could put the park's bears and wider ecosystem at risk.
First Published May 21 2012 11:53 am • Last Updated May 21 2012 12:01 pm

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune on September 25, 2011.

Togwotee Pass, Wyo. -- Eric "Doc" Janssen dangles above the continent, roped to the crown of a centuries-old tree and cradling to his chest the future of a species and, perhaps, America's most revered outdoor playground.

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The whitebark pine is dying, quickly, from Yellowstone's ecosystem and the Northern Rockies. Alarmed conservationists and scientists fear it's tearing the ecological heart from the world's first national park. Even the great bear, the closest thing to a Yellowstone mascot and a voracious scrounger of pine nuts, is at risk.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this summer ruled that the tree is worthy of the endangered-species list - the government just doesn't have money to list and fully protect it.

But Janssen, a permanent seasonal biological technician with Grand Teton National Park, is perched in the craggy tuft of green needles 50 feet above an alpine meadow several mountains south of Yellowstone, midwifing. He slips wire mesh bags over pine cones, saving them from their rightful owners and distributors - squirrels and jays - so they can ripen and be collected later for a seed bank in Colorado Springs.

Other days he snips tiny limb tips for grafting at nurseries. Or he tacks up pheromone pouches that send chemical signals that burrowing mountain pine beetles aren't welcome.

It's not much, but it's something.

"Sometimes we struggle emotionally with whether what we're doing matches the scale of what's going on," says Teton park ecologist Nancy Bockino. "You gotta try."

All around her are hillsides of red and gray death, a haunting welcome for RV tourists who crest this pass and then catch their first glimpse of the towering granite Tetons. This part of the Bridger-Teton National Forest is just one hot spot for beetles and a European tree disease, which are ravaging the old pines throughout the Maine-sized ecosystem anchored by Old Faithful.

Rappelling down after caging 25 fruitcake-hard purple cones, Janssen confesses his affection for individual trees - those that survive and those he couldn't save.

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The whitebark is a distinctive evergreen, twisting through deep snow and cold winds in its youth, then stretching warped limbs skyward, offering cones to cackling gray Clark's nutcrackers on a hedge-flat top. Its botanical personality will never be mistaken for a Christmas tree.

"You do get pretty attached to trees," Janssen says, "especially the ones you've climbed."

The beetles crawling under the bark are a different story. Curious, sure, and with their natural role to play in recycling forests. But most scientists who are watching these trees die think the warming climate is helping beetles thrive on mountaintops where they once couldn't.

Some think the forest will recover like it always has. Some expect "functional extinction" within a decade, leaving a few trees but not enough to feed grizzly bears or to shade late-melting snowbanks that cool summer trout streams or to create the micro-climates that allow berries and rodents to thrive on otherwise dry peaks.

Bockino and Janssen are somewhere in between, buying time for what they hope will be a resurgence.

"[Beetles] did co-evolve with these trees," Janssen says. "I don't know who's to say this isn't what's supposed to happen. It's just so in-your-face. As a human, you think, 'Oh my God. They're all dead.' "

Not all of them, of course, unless you're standing on one of many newly gray slopes lining the Gros Ventre Mountains east of Jackson Hole or the Gravelly Range beyond West Yellowstone. But enough to suddenly propel an isolated, commercially insignificant species into a frenzy of research and politics.

An interagency team that tagged nearly 5,000 trees across the ecosystem in 2004-2007 returned in 2008-2010 to find about a sixth of those whitebarks freshly killed. More troubling, two-thirds of the larger trees - the seed producers - were gone. Presumably, if the beetles keep coming as they have for more than a decade, they will eventually settle for the less-succulent small trees.

Those results followed a 2009 report by Logan-based geospatial analyst Wally MacFarlane of Geo/Graphics, which startled scientists. Working with a retired Forest Service researcher and the Natural Resources Defense Council, MacFarlane found freshly killed trees in nearly every stream drainage. Half the zones had suffered extreme mortality, losing up to 95 percent of their seed trees. And thosenumbers have grown during the past two years.

Elsewhere in the trees' Northern Rockies range, an interagency work group found 90 percent mortality.

"It's not just these spot outbreaks" of the past MacFarlane says, "but a coalesced occurrence that dominates the landscape."

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