by Frederick Reimers | photographs by David Gonzales
...and Gonzales points out a credit card-sized plastic packet stapled to a tree at about head height. The packet contains a cardboard strip soaked in a chemical called verbenone. It's a potential remedy to the greatest threat facing the region's high-alpine ecology—the death of the whitebark pine courtesy of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. The packet, which essentially casts a chemical force field around the tree, was put there last summer by Gonzales' organization, a group of concerned Jackson volunteers called TreeFight.
The impact of the rice-sized insect on lodgepole pine are well-known to most high country residents and visitors—millions of acres of trees killed where they stand across Rocky Mountain hillsides (Winter, 2010 issue). Less known is the critter's assault on the whitebark, a tall, bushy pine found in sparse groves above 8,500 feet in the Cascades, Sierra, and Northern Rockies—just the sort of high, open terrain that makes for great skiing. Whitebark seeds provide the major nutrition source for grizzly bears and a dozen alpine animals. Even more critical is the tree's role in sheltering the snowpack—scientists have found that when the whitebark die, runoff comes earlier and more violently, wrecking streambeds and depriving the ecosystem of sorely needed moisture in the summer. And the whitebark are indeed dying—40 percent of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem's whitebark, about half of all the specimens found in the United States, are already dead, and some experts predict the species will be extinct in seven years.
The reason is global warming. In the past, the beetle was confined to lower elevations where it could survive the winter burrowed under the bark of host trees, but now that the Rockies aren't seeing cold snaps severe enough to kill the beetles at high elevation (five or more consecutive days of 10-below-zero will do the job), the beetles are laying waste to the relatively defenseless whitebark.
What inspired Gonzales to found TreeFight (treefight.org) is that there is a relatively quick fix—the verbenone packets. The chemical mimics a pheromone excreted by the beetles when a tree is overcolonized, so invading beetles move on. When stapled to trees 25 feet apart, an entire grove can be protected for a season. Last summer, TreeFight mustered 100 volunteers to hike deep into the forest and staple 600 packets—at $10 a pop—to critical stands. It's only a start. Applying verbenone to every whitebark stand in the region would cost millions, but the help is welcome. "We're embroiled in the triage; trying to figure out what our best approach to the problem is," says Grand Teton National Park biologist Dr. Kelly McCloskey. "TreeFight's efforts help us save the most critical stands for wildlife while we do the scientific work to find a solution."
Back on Teton Pass, the tree we are standing under looks healthy, while an adjacent, packet-less tree does not—the needles are brown and, after hacking at the bark with a hatchet, we spot a few of the tiny black insects. "So, you'll have to replace the packets each year?" I ask.
"We're just buying time until a longterm solution can be found by science," Gonzales admits. But I can't just hang around and do nothing."
From the Spring 2011 issue