Fight Club: A Ragtag Crew Races to Save Disappearing Trees
Backcountry activists in the Mountain West defend the whitebark pine against climate change and beetle attacks.
Which is what we were heading out to do that crisp July morning. At the cafe, Gonzales gave a half-dozen volunteers a quick tutorial on how to staple a packet, photograph the tree, and record its GPS coordinates. Although our troop was on the small side, TreeFight leads rotating groups of volunteers on about a dozen missions each summer, sometimes taking out teams of 20 or more. These missions, it turns out, play to the strengths of Gonzales's natural peer group, the kind of folks who are happy to spend a day bushwhacking uphill through grizzly country with a backpack full of gear. Among the crew of outdoor badasses gathered at the hippie cafe was pro skier and cover girl Lynsey Dyer, an outspoken cheerleader for TreeFight who has lent some rock-star cred to the fight to save the whitebark. Another was a wide-eyed second grader tagging along with his dad. Gonzales is quick to point out that today's second graders will bear the brunt of climate change as adults. On the way to the trailhead, I asked whether he thought the little guy could handle the rigors of TreeFighting. "I hope so," he said. "He's my ideal audience."
39@ 43' 01" N, 105@ 07' 54" W This is the boxy regional headquarters of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver, where officials announced in the summer of 2011 that whitebark pine deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act. The species was formally declared "warranted, but precluded," an increasingly popular designation that basically puts whitebark on a waiting list for full protection and a recovery plan, awaiting the day when the agency can afford it. The decision did give the whitebark's plight a certain PR boost, however, and it mandates an annual assessment of the species' status. This past January two Montana-based conservation groups filed a lawsuit in federal court to force Fish and Wildlife to bypass this waiting list. Barring a dismissal or a surprise change of policy from the agency, the court will consider the case later this year.
Until then, the whitebark enjoys Fish and Wildlife's second-highest priority, reserved for threats that are "imminent and of high magnitude." Among the reasons for this: the importance of whitebark pine nuts to pre-hibernation grizzly bears. In fall grizzlies in the GYE will gorge on troves of the high-fat seeds, hidden by squirrels in cone caches called middens. In excellent cone years before the current beetle infestation broke out in the 1990s, whitebark seeds could account for an astonishing 97 percent of the annual nourishment of any given grizzly in Yellowstone National Park. When cone counts are down, fewer bears occupy the high country during their hungry season, leading to more human-bear dustups, which are potentially fatal for both sides.
Whitebark seeds are also a favorite snack of the Clark's nutcracker, an ash-colored corvid whose needlenose beak evolved for the very purpose of prying open the pine's stubborn cones. The tree and bird are mutualists, with whitebark almost totally dependent on the nutcracker's food-storage habits for its seed dispersal. The birds, for their part, eat seeds from several different pine species, thriving even at lower elevations and in whitebark-free parts of the West. But early research suggests that the whitebark's collapse in the GYE may still have a profound impact on nutcracker populations. Taza Schaming, a doctoral researcher from Cornell University, has collected preliminary data suggesting that Clark's nutcrackers, like some other corvid species, may not breed in years following notably poor cone production. An indefinite stretch of bad cone years, then, could spell trouble for nutcracker numbers, and because the birds essentially plant each new generation of trees, this would all but doom any potential whitebark rebound.
The Fish and Wildlife Service report also describes how beetles and blister rust manage to kill trees, destroying rings of bark around the trunk and branches, preventing the flow of nutrients and water. Prominently featured is this breezy line: "Currently, there is no known way to stop whitebark pine mortality caused by white pine blister rust and mountain pine beetle." But wait a minute--what about all those packets of verbenone?
43@ 47' 11" N, 110@ 08' 03" W This is the trailhead for our TreeFight mission up Togwotee Pass, in the shadow of the Breccia Cliffs. As we hit the trail that morning, Gonzales confided in me verbenone's dirty little secret. "My line about it," he said, "is that verbenone might actually be better at attracting people to trees than it is at repelling beetles."
And herein lies the real motivation behind TreeFight. Verbenone is indeed largely unproven. Among its critics is beetle guru Logan, who argues that there's not enough data showing that trees tagged with the chemical fare any better than trees without. "I think in the long term it doesn't make a bit of difference," Logan says. He's one of several biologists who have already declared whitebark functionally lost in significant portions of the GYE. In the best of scenarios, verbenone may postpone the inevitable infestation of a few trees--maybe long enough for a cold snap to curtail the beetle population, or to buy time while the Forest Service plants a few stands of nursery-bred, rust-resistant saplings. In the worst-case scenario, it may be doing nothing at all.