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Meet The Beetles and Folks Who Study Them


Louisa Willcox - Senior Wildlife Advocate, Livingston, Montana, NRDC
Posted on Monday 12th October 2009

They flew in from all over the world: Switzerland, Finland, Greece, Italy, Austria, Slovakia, and Canada, as well as many parts of the U.S. Like the beetles they study, these top forest researchers, members of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, aggregated in Jackson, Wyoming, last week to feed on each other's knowledge and new findings about the amazingly adaptable and effective pine beetle and other "forest pests." Climate change and its interactions with fire and water availability, population dynamics, and genetics were all hot topics of discussion.

The challenges are incredibly diverse. I learned about Ambrosia beetles in South Africa. Bark beetles in Scots pine in the Italian Alps. Spruce beetles in the Czech Republic and other European forests. Southern pine beetles in Honduras. Ash borers (introduced from Asia) wreaking havoc in Michigan. And, of course, there was plenty of buzz about the current mountain pine beetle epidemics in lodgepole and whitebark pine in the U.S. and Canada.

While the news was mostly grim, the group was anything but. There was a spirit of congeniality and enthusiasm as each speaker discussed his or her work and the implications of the sometimes breathtaking changes underway in forests around the world. Unlike some of the science organizations I have been around, this one was respectful, curious, probing, smart, knitted together perhaps by a shared sense of urgency about the speed of the changes taking place. Some were willing to try anything, including spraying the chemical verbenone, a pheromone, in tiny flakes over entire forests from helicopters to beat back beetles. No one laughed at this idea, for what is happening to many of the forests is no laughing matter.

Right now, the functional loss of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) appears imminent. As I listened to the presentation by my friend and colleague Wally Macfarlane, who provided a preliminary report on our collaborative assessment of whitebark pine health in the GYE, a requiem to whitebark pine, a song written and sung by Beth McIntosh at an NRDC event last spring, rang in my ears. It was a song about loss and letting go.

Wally is one of the true whitebark warriors. He has put in countless hours in an airplane, on foot, and behind a computer screen to document what is happening to whitebark pine in the GYE. This team of warriors includes one of the world's foremost beetle experts, Dr. Jesse Logan, pilot Bruce Gordon, consultant Willie Kern, interns Dena Adler and Colin Peacock, U.S. Forest Service Silviculturalist Liz Davy, National Park Service forest ecologist Nancy Bockino, Dr. Diana Tomback, as well as citizen scientists like outfitters Meredith and Tory Taylor, Robert Hoskins, climber/author Tom Turiano, Forrest McCarthy, and others inside agencies and out, who are trying desperately to learn what is happening to whitebark and do something about it -- or at least tell the tragic tale of its demise.

Wally, Willie, Jesse and others are still wading through the mountains of data collected this summer in the first-ever full aerial assessment of whitebark pine in the GYE, a collaborative project with NRDC, the U.S. Forest Service, Ecoflight and Geo/Graphics. Wally gave a preview of the results so far. In stark contrast to the claims in the 2007 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Delisting rule that only 16% of whitebark pine had been affected by mountain pine beetle in the GYE, Wally showed that only about that much whitebark appears still healthy in the ecosystem. The reason? The combined effects of climate change, which is allowing the beetles to thrive in the high elevation whitebark forests, and an introduced pathogen, white pine blister rust.

On the third day of the conference, over 50 conference participants traveled by bus up to Togwottee Pass in the Southern Absarokas, a "ground zero" area for beetle activity in whitebark pine, during what turned out to be the first big snowstorm of the fall. Big wet flakes fell hard, and the otherwise spectacular view was obscured. But people were in good spirits - it was clear as long as they have hatchets, foresters and entomologists have fun whatever the weather. Here, they eagerly whacked dying whitebark, examining the complex galleries the beetle pupa had laid under the bark of the trees, as well as tiny white larvae and black adults, the size of a pencil head. It is still hard for me to wrap my head around how these wee creatures, with typically one- to two-year life cycles, can take down massive, majestic whitebark that have stood here, some over a thousand years, feeding and sheltering elk, squirrels, Clarks nutcrackers, and of course, the Great Bear. It just doesn't seem fair.

The conference organizers, Drs. Barbara Bentz and Diana Six, asked me to share some of what I know about the unique relationship between whitebark pine and Yellowstone grizzly population, which I have passionately advocated for over the past 25 years. In Yellowstone, grizzlies rely more heavily on the seeds of stone pine (of which whitebark is a member) than any other grizzly population in the world. While grizzlies eat a lot of things, from hornets to pond weed to buffalo, in Yellowstone whitebark is the key driver of female reproductive success. And whitebark helps reduce grizzly bear mortality by concentrating them up high, in some of the most remote country in the ecosystem, and away from high densities of people during their fall feeding frenzy. The consequences of a rapid loss of whitebark in the GYE is predicted by the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team to resemble the closing of the Yellowstone dumps in 1969 and 1970, which pushed the Yellowstone grizzly population to the very brink of extinction (as few as 200 bears remained by the early 1980s, compared to 400-600 individuals today, after endangered species protections were applied for 32 years).

In my remarks, I built on a talk given by Jesse the day before about the history of the collapse of whitebark pine in Yellowstone. He reported to the group on the recent court ruling that reestablished endangered species protections for Yellowstone grizzlies the week before, in part because of the arbitrary and irrational way in which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had applied available scientific information on whitebark pine and its relationship to the future of the Yellowstone grizzly. (In defending its decision to delist the grizzly, the Service had tried to downplay the role of whitebark as the engine driving the health of the population and ignore or distort existing information on the extent of the threats to these forests.)

Applause erupted from the audience. My jaw dropped. And then I realized that this group of researchers saw this victory as a vindication of science, and of the importance of the proper and accurate use of scientific information in the policy context. Here was a group of scientists, many from countries with far weaker environmental laws than we have, who understood how critical it is to have laws like the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which requires the use of the best scientific information available, and a judicial system with judges willing to enforce these laws.

May we never take this system or these laws for granted. They have been responsible for saving species like the Yellowstone grizzly from extinction before, and fortunately, as of two weeks ago, ESA protections are again in place to keep the Great Bear healthy in an ecosystem where not just one, but two key foods (whitebark pine and Yellowstone cutthroat trout) have collapsed in the last few years.

People from around the world, including this group of scientists, expect us in the United States to provide a model of rigorous and high quality science and a commitment to conservation. If we can't get it right here with our nation's -- and the world's -- first national park, what kind of example will we set with endangered species recovery for the rest of the world?

***This post originally appeared on the NRDC Switchboard.

Louisa Willcox is based in Livingston, Montana. From 1997-2002 she served as project coordinator for the Sierra Clubs Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project, a campaign to recover the grizzly in the lower 48 states. From 1985-1995, Louisa served as program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, where she managed the program staff, and directed the advocacy efforts of the Coalition. She has an M.S. from the School of Forestry at Yale University and a B.A. from Williams College in Williamstown, MA.

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