The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 160: The New Rust Belt

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Yellowstone National Park is certainly a spectacular place. But if you visit it, you might want to observe some of the spectacular changes that are happening in this area. This week on The WildeBeat; The New Rust Belt

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one-sixty.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: The whole ecosystem in and around Yellowstone National Park is a popular destination for wilderness adventure. The attractions start with its rugged setting, only to be topped by its diverse wildlife. An adventure in the park might lead you to see bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, moose, mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, wolverines, martens, wolves, black bears, or grizzly bears. With all of these spectacular attractions, you might overlook the big changes being caused by a rather humble inhabitant of the area.

STEVE: Guest correspondent Kurt Repanshek joins us with this special report from Yellowstone. Kurt?

KURT REPANSHEK: You know, Steve, as ecological drivers go, you wouldn't think an insect roughly the size of a rice grain would be that significant in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Sprawling across roughly twenty million acres, the ecosystem claims Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks as well as six national forests.

KURT REPANSHEK: Though long treasured for its wilderness settings, the ecosystem today is turning into America's newest "rust belt" as the mountain pine beetle, aided by a warming climate, chews through the landscape. That's quite obvious from the air -- or any high vantage point, for that matter -- as beetle-infested trees first turn red as their needles die, and then go a ghostly grey as the needles fall off. The mountain pine beetle has been another player in the ecosystem for quite awhile, having evolved right along with the lodgepole pine forests. Indeed, forest ecologists view the beetle as a direct cause for thinning forests.

KURT REPANSHEK: But climate change is enabling this beetle to make longer and longer forays into the upper elevations of the ecosystem. These inroads are seriously jeopardizing another key species -- whitebark pine trees -- which have not evolved with pine beetles so they have no natural defenses. Barring a dramatic change from the current course of events, the beetles will wipe out the mature whitebark pines. And the ripples of that episode could have dire ramifications for the overall health of the Greater Yellowstone in general and for the grizzly bear specifically.

KURT REPANSHEK: During a recent trip high into the Wind River Range on the southern tip of this ecosystem, climate-change specialists, forest entomologists, and wildlife biologists spelled out the serious consequences the pine beetle is having on the whitebark pine.

JESSE LOGAN: I think functionally, whitebark pine is functionally lost in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

KURT REPANCHEK: Dr. Jesse Logan is a recently retired U.S. Forest Service entomologist who is one of the country's leading experts on the mountain pine beetle. He says what's transpiring now in the Greater Yellowstone is the potential loss of an ecosystem.

JESSE LOGAN: I hope I'm wrong. It would be so great to have been wrong in all of this. But from what I see and the predictions with what's going on in climate and the overwhelming evidence that the wheels are going to be set in motion and they're going to be moving even if we begin to address the issue of global warming and greenhouse gases right now, which we're not doing.

KURT REPANSHEK: Whitebark pine is important for so many species in the Greater Yellowstone. Grizzly bears, particularly females, gain a great deal of nutritional benefits by fattening up on whitebark pine nuts in the fall just before they go into hibernation. Red squirrels thrive on them, and Clark's nutcrackers are, in effect, nature's gardeners by caching whitebark pine seeds that later germinate if they're not eaten. In addition, stands of whitebark pines can even define watersheds. In winter they serve as snow fences that direct where snowfall drifts. In spring and on into early summer the trees shade these drifts and so snowmelt is slowly released into drainages.

KURT REPANSHEK: Diana Tomback is a biology professor at the University of Colorado in Denver, who's interests cover evolutionary and behavioral ecology, as well as forest ecology. She worries about all the species that will suffer if the white bark pines dissappear.

DIANA TOMBACK: [20:40] "What happens to this ecosystem as we lose more and more whitebark and the ecosystem services provided decline? Those seeds are not just taken by Clark's nutcrackers and not just taken by Grizzly bears. There's a number of birds and small mammals that will eat the seeds. We've talked about the fact that whitebark grows in this area, the drier areas, up at the highest elevations at tree-line, and the canopies actually shade snow, and even in the upper sub-alpine and lengthen the time that that snow pack would take to melt so it regulates downstream flow.

DIANA TOMBACK: [21:25] "People down below and ranching and agriculture take for granted the services provided by whitebark, and these will dwindle."

KURT REPANSHEK: Louisa Willcox is a senior wildlife advocate in Montana for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Her resume is quite long when it comes to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and working to preserve its landscape and wildlife. She fears the loss of the whitebark pine will deal a crippling blow to the ecosystem's precarious grizzly bear populations by forcing bears to lower elevations in their search for food and into deadly conflicts with human populations.

LOUISA WILLCOX: "The important thing about the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, different from every grizzly bear population that's known about in the world, is whitebark pine. And whitebark pine is the engine that drives the health of this population. It drives the reproductive success of the females and it drives mortality rates, because whitebark pine, being a high-elevation tree species, keeps grizzly bears at high elevation areas and out of harm's way in the late summer season when they have to pack on the calories to get through the winter. If you lose whitebark pine in this ecosystem -- and this has been documented by a number of different research projects -- grizzly bears can survive on hornets and ants and earthworms and pond weed and lots of other plants, but where will they find those things? They will have to go down to lower elevation areas where more people are and therefore they will die at higher rates. Grizzly bears can compensate, but the real question is do we have a heart to share a landscape with a big, fierce carnivore that many people are terrified of, and where in this ecosystem more and more people are trying to find a piece of paradise, moving up against the boundaries of the national forest in grizzly bear habitat. Will they have the understanding, the discipline, the heart the compassion to live with grizzly bears. That's the key question.

KURT REPANSHEK: How grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone will survive with this dire forecast is hard to say. While much of the whitebark forests now are being attacked by the mountain pine beetle, Dr. Logan says there are some remote areas in the ecosystem that are high enough, and cold enough, to survive, at least in the short term.

JESSE LOGAN: "There are two areas, the central core of the Wind River Mountains and the Beartooth Plateau, and both of them have climatic conditions that are really cold. And that's what's preserving the whitebark there. But the Beartooth in particular is really interesting, because it's the largest contiguous area above 10,000 feet in the U.S., so it's this huge plateau, 10,000 feet or more, with whitebark pine in upright forest all the way to Krumholtz on the edges. It's this tremendous genetic resource that's not going to be hit by the beetles for, at least, maybe a century, 50, 60 years because those trees are so slow-growing. That's encouraging if we begin to address the issue of global warming. And then in the Winds, the central core of the Winds because of permanent snow and ice and cold air drainage again I think is a very cold place. And the whitebark pine stands there are magnificent so. But the glaciers are receding there and when we lose the permanent snow and glaciers in the Winds I think there's going to be a very sudden shift in the climate and the Winds are going to be toast."

KURT REPANSHEK: What this scenario boils down to, according to Louisa Willcox, is that humans will have to learn to co-exist with grizzly bears if the bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are to survive.

LOUISA WILLCOX: "I think we're going to see a decline of grizzly bear numbers in the core of the ecosystem as whitebark declines, including Yellowstone Park, which is tragic because it's the most protected landscape in the whole ecosystem. And I think the debate is going to rest on, the issue is going to come down to are we able to expand to where bears can be, and that gets to social tolerance and the community level. The issue gets down to people and communities and whether we can change people's understanding and their own relationship with these animals fast enough. I think there's an urgency of speed, and people need to understand the threat. Right now the government is basically dismissing what is happening with whitebark pine, they are basically ignoring it. I think if people knew what the future looks like and how grim it is, there are a lot of people who would look deep into their hearts and say, 'I can share my yard with a bear if I'm a little more careful.' I think a lot of people would reach very deep to try to make it right for bears, to give bears a place."

STEVE: So Kurt, how obvious are these changes right now? I mean to your average visitor just taking a cruise through the park, let alone the backcountry.

KURT REPANSHEK: You know, they're fairly obvious, Steve. You know, as you drive up through Grand Teton National Park you can see them off in the distance, and the closer you get to Yellowstone, you know, here and there you'll see red patches of forest out there, on the hillsides.

STEVE: Well, thanks Kurt, for bringing us this story.

KURT REPANSHEK: It's my pleasure, Steve.

STEVE: Kurt Repanshek can be found at his news site, National Parks Traveler dot com.

STEVE: Have you seen evidence of climate change in the Northern Rockies? We'd like to share your comments with your fellow listeners, and we always want to hear any other comments you have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to more information about Yellowstone National Park, about the effects of the mountain pine beetle, and download an extended version of this show, on our web site.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham and Kate Taylor, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one-sixty. Thank you for listening.

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