What Does Climate Change in Yellowstone Look Like? By Matt Skogland in NRDC Switchboard blog

Not good…a must read and another point of view that might happen in Yellowstone National Park as a result of a changing climate. What is happening to the Whitebark Pine as a result is indeed sad.

I had a golden eagle’s view of the dead and dying whitebark pine forests in the Greater Yellowstone. To see the devastation of high-elevation forest after high-elevation forest was disturbing, especially because we’re to blame, as the true killer of these magnificent trees is climate change.

With warmer winter temperatures, mountain pine beetles are surviving at higher elevations because the requisite prolonged cold snaps needed to kill the beetles are not happening. And the beetles are feasting on – and decimating – whitebark pine trees.

A non-native fungus, white pine blister rust, is also wreaking havoc on whitebark.

Whitebark pines are the bad asses of the sub-alpine plant community. They eke out a living in a harsh, windy, cold, relentless landscape. They’re a foundation species, as they’re often the first tree to inhabit an area after a forest disturbance. They’re also a nurse tree, as their pioneering of a new area allows other trees to then take root there. And they’re a keystone species, as they significantly affect the entire ecosystem. Whitebark pines stabilize the soil, shade snowpack into the summer (which helps provide desperately needed water late in the summer when our streams and rivers need it most), and their nutritious seeds are a critical food source for Clark’s nutcracker birds, red squirrels, and grizzly bears.

In fact, the loss of whitebark pine seeds as a food source for Yellowstone grizzlies will be calamitous for the iconic bears. Without whitebark pine seeds, the bears won’t be trekking through the high country to gorge on whitebark seeds in the late summer and fall. Instead, they’ll be forced to search for replacement foods at lower elevations, where they’re more likely to bump into us – and thus more likely to get killed.

NRDC submitted a petition in December 2008 to list whitebark pine as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. In July of this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service made an initial finding that endangered species protection for whitebark pine “may be warranted.” The Service is now engaged in a more thorough review.

As my helicopter flight vividly showed me, whitebark pine is in serious trouble. Endangered Species Act protection – and the funding, research, and critical habitat designations that accompany it – are desperately needed.


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