March 23, 2010

Cooke City, Montana: of beetles, trees, and skiing.

Headed over to Cooke City, Montana a few days ago on assignment for Backcountry magazine to ski with Jesse Logan, a backcountry-skiing entomologist who is studying mountain pine beetles and their devastating impact on whitebark pine trees. WBPs are beautiful, often ancient trees that grow in the high mountains of the Northern Rockies, Sierras, and Cascades. Their nuts are a critical food source for grizzly bears and other mountain wildlife, while the trees themselves are vital for backcountry skiers. Not only does their wide spacing allow for excellent tree skiing, but they provide "safe zones" on steep mountainsides, anchor potential avalanche slopes, and prolong the spring snowpack with their thermal cover (which is also good for down-valley trout and other water-loving creatures, like people). And, according to Jesse, they'll be functionally eliminated from most of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem within five to ten years.

Jesse led a group of interested skiers into the mountains around Cooke City to cut into whitebark pine that have been infested with beetles. In years past, cold temperatures would have killed off the beetles this high in the mountains, but with steadily warming winters the voracious insects are now thriving. Having largely avoided them in the past, the whitebark's beetle defenses are weak.

That little black spot in front of Jesse's thumb, under the pine bark, is a beetle. Amazing that such a little creature can alter an entire landscape.

After the rest of the group skied back to town, I stayed with Jesse while he looked at more trees. Here he saves the GPS waypoint for a stand of impacted trees. In the background, you can see the red needles of dead whitebark. The ravaged bark on the near trees is from woodpeckers feasting on the beetles. Go woodpeckers!

The next morning I headed out for a ski with friends to check out the head-spinning terrain around Cooke City.

There's, uh, some pretty good skiing here.

The avalanche path we skied was lined with whitebark pine. It may be only a matter of time until the whitebark in the foreground above, like the others on the mountainside, is killed by the beetles.

Jesse's hope is that when the climate stabilizes and returns to its "normal" patterns, there will be enough pockets of surviving whitebark that the tree can recolonize the mountains once again. For the sake of the trees, the bears, and future generations of skiers, let's hope it comes to pass.

In the meantime, let the woodpeckers feast.

Note: Thanks to the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Montana Backcountry Alliance for organizing the field day with Jesse.

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