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Spooked By The Ghost Forests Of Greater Yellowstone

Connecting Grizzlies To Climate Change: Former Government Scientist Expresses Shock Over The Rapid Loss Of Whitebark Pine,

Dead whitebark pine trees in Greater Yellowstone. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Hoodoo Basin: the name alone fires my imagination. It’s a place I find fascinating, not just because of its name and the intriguing landform that inspired it, but also because of where it is, along the remote backbone of Yellowstone National Park’s eastern boundary. An intriguing place, but somehow I never quite got around to getting up there, that is—not until the summer of 2015.

The occasion was my first-ever guided backpack trip which took the form of a field seminar hosted by the Yellowstone Association. The name of the excursion was “On the Trail of the Nez Perce”and geographically, the route took us through the heart of Hoodoo Basin, but it could have also been named, “On the Trail of Climate Change.”

Hoodoo Basin coupled with the Nez Perce is a combination both tragic and inspiring—inspiring for me because as a former U.S. Forest Service entomologist the trail took us above 8,500 feet—right into whitebark pine country where I spent a good portion of my multi-decade career conducting research.

I’ve had a long and abiding love affair with whitebark pine.  HooDoo Basin and the pass that leads into Sunlight Creek lies almost exactly halfway between Avalanche Peak—the epicenter of whitebark tragedy—and Republic Pass, a place of whitebark redemption and a sliver of hope.

The intriguing questions that loomed in front of me two years ago were: what was the condition of HooDoo whitebark and how could I resist this opportunity to investigate? The short answer is: I couldn’t.

Before we set off, our group met at the Bozeman REI outlet for pre-trip orientation and  introduction to our leaders, Patty Walton and Jim Garry. I’ve never been much interested in organized outdoor activities – yes, I was a Boy Scout washout – and at any rate, tend to be shy around strangers.

I had previously met Patty during a ski tour I led for Beartooth Powder Guides out of Cooke City, Montana. From this experience, I knew that I liked her, that she is a kick-ass backcountry skier, a hard-core mountain traveler, and someone not to be trifled with when it comes to cribbage.

Jim “Tex” Garry I knew only by reputation. The other participants I knew not at all. Patty set my ambivalence immediately to rest. I headed home to Emigrant with the plan of meeting up the next morning at Yellowstone Association headquarters in Gardiner on Yellowstone’s northern doorstep.

When we reached the trailhead, the Lamar River was running a deep chocolate from the previous week’s rain – no fishing this evening. Oh well, I thought to myself, so be it, this trip is not about fishing anyway.

The trail led across the upper reaches of Lamar Valley, a place Osborne Russell described as, “a beautiful valley about 8 Mls. long and 3 or 4 wide surrounded by dark and lofty mountains … and for my own part I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this.”

Sentiments no less true today than when Russell scribbled them longhand in 1835, and in large part due to the unimaginable foresight of setting this place aside in 1872, four years before George Armstrong Custer went down in infamy at the Little Bighorn. Remarkable!
It is tragic; no, it's heartbreaking to see these magnificent, ancient forests blink out one by one. Even I am surprised how it is happening much faster than any of us thought."  —Jesse Logan
We spent the next couple of day’s pleasantly hiking up the valley of the Lamar.  In the evenings, I did get some fishing in and listened as Jim told yarns of the remarkable Nez Perce journey and more. This guy, Garry, knows a lot about things Yellowstone and beyond.  I later discovered how revered he is as a storyteller. I took mental notes for my own interpretive guiding.

On the hike up Miller Creek into HooDoo Basin, I was feeling disappointed in spite of the remarkable landscape we were traveling through. I had expected a climax whitebark forest, but instead found a forest of mainly spruce and fir. If the hike to the HooDoo overlook was disappointing, then the view from the saddle was devastating.

Today the HooDoo Basin whitebark forest resembles the similar devastation that has played out across Avalanche Peak and much more than the healthy forests of Republic Creek. It is tragic; no, it's heartbreaking to see these magnificent, ancient forests blink out one by one. Even I am surprised how it is happening much faster than any of us thought.  Roughly 80 percent of the mature whitebark pine forest that blanketed the high country of Greater Yellowstone is gone and after yet another dry summer who knows what awaits the relic trees.
On a lay-over in HooDoo, Patty, Dave Warren and I spent a day circumnavigating the basin, including summiting Parker and HooDoo Peaks. Although any day in the whitebark realm is to be treasured, the overriding impression from this one was unease. We saw only one grizzly bear scat during the entire day, and that one dark black indicated a diet of meat or vegetation.

By contrast, in a healthy whitebark forest at this time of year you would expect see many bear scats, all a rich orange color and containing whitebark pine cone scales and the shells of pine nuts.

A healthy whitebark forest, in fact not so long ago provided the most important grizzly food in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the fat and protein-rich pine nuts obtained by raiding red squirrel middens—huge caches of seed-rich cones buried in the ground. Meanwhile, Clark’s nutcrackers also collect seeds and stash them in the soil, producing seedlings and allowing forests to spread.

The seeds in whitebark pine cones is particularly important for female bears during the critical time of hyperphagia—an annual physiological state affecting bruins when they have abnormally large appetites as part of an evolutionary drive to put on weight prior to underground hibernation. If they don’t get enough nutrition, bears can die or, in the case of female grizzlies pregnant with cubs, the pregnancy could be terminated or the whole family emerging from the den might be weakened in the spring.

It’s pretty cool to see how the interactions of whitebark, squirrels, nutcrackers and bears works: the squirrel does all the work, and the Great Bear reaps the rewards. A squirrel is absolutely no threat to a grizzly; and best of all, the high-elevation habitat of whitebark keeps the marauding bears pulled into the remotest pockets of backcountry well out of harm’s way from people (except sometimes with hunters).

Curiously, we also encountered no squirrels. No squirrels in a whitebark forest? Preposterous. Typically in late summer a whitebark forest is a raucous affair with squirrels harvesting cones and bombarding you as they drop them to the forest floor for before collecting them into middens, a larder for the coming winter.

We found no active middens, only the deteriorating remains from past years. Following this experience, overcome by an overwhelming sense of discord, I was unable to sleep that night.

It was not just the dead trees, but also the missing bears and the absent squirrels. The entire system, including myself, was out of sorts. The most vibrant of any forest I know had been silenced. I knew the cause because I had predicted it decades earlier—climate change involving greenhouse gases derived from the human burning of fossil fuels becoming trapped in the atmosphere and turning up the temperature on the alpine and subalpine regions of the whitebark pine zone.

It was a future I hoped would never arrive.

This sense of disharmony lingered into the following morning, which dawned wet and dreary with low hanging clouds and a drizzling rain. We broke a wet camp and began to hike out, at first retracing our previous day’s route. It was starting out to be a not good day. But as we gained Sunlight Pass, the rain diminished and the clouds began to lift, leaving trailing mists across a spectacular alpine landscape.

Along with the mists, my spirits also began to rise. The startling beauty of this place brought to mind not yesterday’s devastation but the hope of a future whitebark forest. Although the bears and squirrels were absent, there were enough cone-producing whitebark near tree-line to keep the Clark’s nutcrackers actively caching seeds in the windswept reaches of the vast alpine eastern boundary of Yellowstone.

Still, the reality is that under conducive "normal" conditions it takes 80 years for new whitebark seedling sprouting today to achieve cone-bearing maturity.

I refuse to surrender to despair though on some days it is hard not to succumb. Up high that day, I began to actually experience a sense not of defeat, but one of promise, though it's one that extends far into the future beyond the span of my own life. And it requires generations rallying to work together beginning now, passing the baton of stewardship, engagement and caring from old to young.

If only we could understood enough about this complex system of inter-relationships— of landscapes, weather, birds, bears, and granite—that perhaps, perhaps, my grandchildren could experience a young healthy whitebark forest that had colonized tree-line and alpine landscapes that remain resilient in the face of a radically-warming world.

The secret, it seemed, would be to facilitate the natural processes that have maintained whitebark for the past 10,000 years in the face of a relentlessly warming climate. The difference today is the rate of warming vastly exceeds that of any previous time in the Holocene. The complex fabric of the whitebark system, which is based on the mutualistic relationship of a squirrel, bird and tree, which in turn supports grizzlies, is in danger of becoming unraveled.

The overarching question is, can we who are responsible for this situation also help to resolve it? Knowledge, understanding, and sensitive management will determine the future of whitebark, and all the unique benefits these magnificent trees provide. But today, in an America that is under siege by anti-science, anti-fact, and anti-truth political agendas that includes attacks on scientists, is there any hope of getting closer to answers?

Jesse Logan
About Jesse Logan

Jesse Logan is literally a man of the woods. Much of his former career as a civil servant was spent studying why forests of the American West live and die. He amassed an impressive body of work publishing papers as a researcher. He is also revered, even among millennial-aged telemark skiers, for his ability to hold his own off-piste with wayfarers a third his age.
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