Out of Bounds

Whitebark Decline Complicates Griz Recovery

Climate change, extreme fire and non-native blister rust have ravaged whitebark pine, which last week was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act

By Rob Breeding

I’m not sure when I had my aha moment. 

It might have been the day I toured the Lick Creek Research Forest in the Bitterroot some 30 years ago, learning how dog-hair stands of Douglas fir threatened old-growth Ponderosa pine. 

Or maybe it was in those frantic days I was trying to make sense of the pronghorn decline on Arizona’s Anderson Mesa as I completed my master’s thesis.

But a good bet would be the first time I wrote about the decline of whitebark pine in the upper elevations of Montana’s national forests.

The aha came when I learned whitebark pine seeds were an important food source for grizzlies and that the decline of these trees would make bear recovery all the harder.

Oversimplifying complex ecosystems is what we do when we haven’t sufficiently learned about them. Ecosystems are complex places stitched together by gossamer. Small, but crucial strands of the web are sometimes broken, often by the hubris that all can be rendered simple if we throw enough technology at it.

Consider bobwhite quail. Once, when you said quail, it was just understood you meant bobwhite and not one of the other five species scratching about the United States. Bobwhite were the dominant game bird from the western edge of the Great Plains east and south to Florida, but they are sparse now on much of that range, defying efforts to restore them. 

Bobwhite hunters have a shared experience: we’ve looked out over weedy, tangled patches of habitat that seem perfect for a quail, yet hours later, having followed a sharp-nosed bird dog through most of it, never moved a covey.

Bull trout are a bit like bobwhite in this regard, though I think we have a better handle on the needs of the native apex predator of Montana’s rivers and streams. It’s just hard finding places we haven’t already simplified with non-native fish or blanketed with silt those pristine streams these persnickety char require for spawning and incubating eggs and fry.

Then there are wolves. The ecosystems of the Northern Rockies are every bit as complex as those southern quail thickets, but it seems the strands that hold things together for wolf packs are sturdier stuff. All it takes to make wolves is deer or elk-rich habitat and management not designed to wipe them out. 

Grizzlies seem somewhere in the middle. Yellowstone and Glacier national parks host healthy, if not thriving populations of these apex land predators. We mythologize the enormous power of grizzly bears in movies and film like “Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies,” but humans are a rare food source. 

Griz prefer less dangerous and more plentiful calories when available, such as spawning cutthroat trout, miller moths, winter-killed big game and where the trees are abundant, whitebark pine seeds.

In the fall, near the tree line, Clark’s nutcrackers, a corvid like ravens and jays, relentlessly gather whitebark pine seeds. One bird might cache nearly 100,000 seeds, buried in stores of a half dozen or so. Nutcrackers put away extra, knowing squirrels and bears will pilfer some. Since they are corvids we know Clark’s nutcrackers are smart birds, but even smart birds with great memories aren’t going to find every one of those seeds.

This gossamer holds the ecosystem together. It’s good for bears and also for trees. Some researchers think just about every whitebark pine on the landscape was planted by a Clark’s nutcracker.

Unfortunately, climate change, extreme fire and non-native blister rust, a disease imported on landscaping plants, have ravaged whitebark pine. Last week the tree was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

My aha moments stretched into an aha decade and then longer as I learned to appreciate the gossamer complexity of wildlife and land management. Aha moments suggest we’re still learning. 

Realizing we were ignorant fools all along is usually our greatest insight.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.