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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.

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From the air, the low mountains east of Jackson Hole are a sea of gentle gray waves, the whitebarks fully obliterated slope after slope, naked limbs stretched to the heavens. In the valleys between them are periodic geometrically plotted green patches - young, resilient lodgepole pines, reviving from 1970s clear cutting, says pilot Mike Collins.

Collins has been flying here that long, frequently accompanying nature photographers and wildlife-tracking biologists. He believes the old logging, which caused "a lot of squawking" among the resort area's nature lovers, has proven essential because beetles won't take scrawny young trees.

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"Some of these areas," he says, "are gonna be the saving grace of the forest."

Whitebark, though, isn't for loggers. The tree is generally in rocky terrain too far from valley roads and too gnarled to make good lumber.

Beetles are the big killers here, but farther north, in wetter areas of Idaho or in Montana's Glacier National Park, nonnative blister rust spores have nearly wiped out whitebarks.

The crash led Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to agree the tree merits protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency will conduct a second review next year to either confirm or elevate the whitebark's priority status.

Wyoming-based Fish and Wildlife biologist Amy Nicholas says the July ruling followed research confirming a threat from warming winters, which allow beetles to survive on the peaks where whitebarks live.

The Utah Climate Center says data from a Moose, Wyo., weather station in Grand Teton National Park indicate average winter lows have warmed by less than half a degree per decade since 1970. But those averages reflect a decline of extreme subzero cold snaps, which would be expected to kill beetle larvae.

The crisis has jump-started research meant to protect the whitebark, including a "plus tree" program in which foresters and scientists identify healthy trees and an Idaho nursery propagates and tests them to ensure disease-resistance.

Biologists also are scrambling to see whether thinning trees around whitebarks will help.

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Last month, Gallatin National Forest biologist Jodie Canfield hiked through thickly forested slopes around an old mining district at Cooke City, Mont., just outside Yellowstone. She was marking points for a thinning experiment in a place that has resisted beetles, perhaps because it's buffered by the high, cold Beartooth Plateau.

In October, she will tap about $20,000 in grants to pay a fire crew to cut fir and other trees, which are shading whitebark pines, to see how they respond. Then she will pay a University of Idaho researcher $10,000 to come back in three and five years to record the results.

"It's just been in the last five years there's been any money for whitebark [research]," she says.

This scientific scurry is good news to Louisa Willcox, Yellowstone-area senior wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She just hopes it's not too late for the grizzlies.

The Yellowstone bears, which have expanded their range and tripled their numbers to about 600 since their own federal protection in the 1970s, are starting to confront failing pine-nut crops.

Bear-human conflicts, ending in death for the grizzlies frequently and people rarely, increase in years of poor whitebark seed production, according to the U.S. Geological Survey-led Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. Hungry bears go looking for food, sometimes in camps or the gut piles that elk hunters leave behind.

All-time highs - approaching 50 bear deaths - have been recorded in the past few years.

Government research shows bear litter sizes also dip in bad years, from 2.2 to 2 - fewer triplets, but still more twins than singles.

"There is overwhelming scientific evidence," Willcox says, "that shows the greater Yellowstone ecosystem whitebark pine is a key driver of this population."

Study team leader Chuck Schwartz says it isn't so simple. Even in years of lackluster seed crops, researchers have found, during the past 26 years, deaths to females exceed what scientists consider acceptable about a quarter of the time.

Sampling of bear hairs shows scientists that grizzlies eat more meat when whitebark declines. Maybe they kill elk calves. Maybe they dig pocket gophers.

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