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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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"Grizzly bears are opportunistic omnivores," Schwartz says. "They take advantage of whatever the best food is available at that time of year, and they diet-switch."

Environmentalists are struggling in court to maintain the bears' protection, citing the trees' decline. The government has declared the bears recovered, but a federal judge disagreed. The ruling is on appeal.

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The government's position, Willcox says, "is a little bit surprising, given that the landscape has been turned upside down."

Yellowstone officials say they are seeing some young whitebark pines grow where the old trees have died. Their mission is to encourage natural processes, and so far they believe that's working.

Foresters have predicted the demise of whitebark before, park ecologist Roy Renkin says, recalling Dust Bowl-era journals lamenting a beetle outbreak. And people seem to forget an infestation that wiped out limber pine, a related species, around park headquarters in the mid-1980s.

"It looked like this [1980s] outbreak was going to decimate the forest," Renkin says, "but all of a sudden the outbreak crashed."

Those 20th-century outbreaks were nothing compared with this one, according to MacFarlane, the aerial mapper. If they were, his crew would have found many slowly decaying tree trunks among the fresh dead that they surveyed. Instead, they found "legacy" trees in only 9 percent of the plots.

Others say the regeneration that Yellowstone reports is from pre-outbreak seeds, and there aren't seed producers left to continue it.

In fact, the whitebark's plight is almost a lost cause for some scientists.

Diana Six, a University of Montana entomologist who specializes in bark beetles, says Yellowstone once appeared a crucial refuge for whitebark because its cold, dry mountains wouldn't support blister rust so well. Central Idaho was warmer and, consequently, had lost 98 percent of its whitebarks.

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Then the mountain winters warmed and beetles flowed uphill.

"Now," she says, "with the beetle [in Yellowstone], whitebark just seems like it's toast. Nothing's going to shove the beetle off the mountain now."

Bockino, the Grand Teton ecologist, keeps the faith. Unlike her Yellowstone counterparts, who prefer to watch the trends, she spends almost every working day of the summer in the trees, trying to save them. Next year she'll plant seedlings in the park.

Beetles have hit the Tetons' east slope hard, she says, and it shows along popular trails such as Garnet Canyon. She thinks the trees deserve some help against native beetles because they also face the nonnative blister rust. It's crucial to save pockets of seed growers.

"We saved 200 trees in Garnet Canyon," she says. "If they live 500 years more, how many cones will they produce?"

Enough to outlast beetles and fight through climate change? Enough to place the gnarly, slow-growing crown back on these mountains?

Only the centuries will tell.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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