Last evening I went to an NRDC and TreeFight meeting on the whitebark pine on the campus of Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana…it was sad to see photographs of entire whitebark stands as ghost forests. The two hosts of the talk were excited about a stand of whitebark forest called Blue Ridge up in the Wind River Range of Wyoming that was relatively untouched by pine beetles. The stand had some beetle killed trees in it so I figured the stand would die out in a few years as temperatures (on the average) warmed up…you see global warming was now killing these trees over a short period of time in ecological standards. About 13 years ago some of these pines, about 30%, were being killed by blister rust fungus but now 95% of whitebark stands were being overwhelmed, like never before, by the pine bark beetle.
It occured to me that these stands were a center of wildlife activity just 13 years ago. In one afternoon, about every 4 years Clark’s Nutcrackers and red squirrels would be harvesting whitebark cone nuts. The squirrels cached cones and nutcrackers stuffed their crops with cones and then flew off to stash the cones. Black bears climbed the pine trees and ate pine nuts and grizzly bears found squirrel cone caches and raided the caches of cones. We saw seven grizzly bears per night in a non high production cone year. We saw 11 or more grizzly bears per night in a good cone year. Up in this area where I specifically looked at grizzly bear food selection. I saw 1 cycle of high level production of good pine nuts, this area being 15 miles from West Yellowstone in a well known grizzly bear area just out of Yellowstone National Park.
Twice we saw wolverines in the alpine next to the pinenut stands and several times in the whitebark pines we jumped a herd of elk, about 75 of them. Early in the season, beneath the whitebark roots we crawled into the den of a large grizzly bear. The whitebarks back then were full of life, especially when the pinenuts were ready for harvest.
When the whitebark pine dies out bears will become management mortalities and that type of mortality will increase when whitebark crops fail. Bears will seek protein, increasingly, in hunters camps or at developed areas such as Canyon, Pahaska Teepee, Lake Lodge and Tower Junction and they will become mortalities.
Black bears are now in towns like Bozeman, Montana and grizzly bears may show up in towns like West Yellowstone, Montana where they will be killed…this has happened before This time the whitebark pine will not come back and have a good year.