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Working to protect Whitebark Pine trees in Yellowstone National Park

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Posted at 9:54 AM, Nov 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-13 11:55:09-05

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — An entire ecosystem, anchored in Yellowstone National Park is on the verge of collapse. Now, an effort started by the park is attempting to save a bird, in order to save a forest.

Joe Ricketts, the creator of the Ricketts Foundation, which is funding the massive project said, “Of all of the conservation stories I’ve heard, this one has the most fun. It has the most interest.”

But it starts with a tragic story. You see it in aerial video from across the northern Rocky Mountains. Thousands and thousands of acres of Whitebark Pine trees are dead.

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“When you look on the landscape, and you look at the trees that are in the highest craggiest places, those are White Bark pine,” said Hillary Robison, deputy chief of the Yellowstone Center for Resources.

The trees are falling victim to wildfires and bark beetles but mostly to blister rust disease.

Ricketts said, “So many trees have already died that this whole ecosystem was just going to go out of existence.”

You can see some of that in Yellowstone, just up the hill from the turnoff to Mount Washburn. That is where you’ll find a small stand of Whitebark Pine. One of the trees is infected with blister rust. It has killed part of the tree. But park researchers say the tree has been tested and is blister rust resistant. So, they say they expect it will be able to fight off the infection and will survive. That could be good for other trees across the Rockies.

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Robison said the trees have been studied for decades. She explained, “In the 1940s, Olaus Murie observed grizzly bears feeding on whitebark pine seeds. In the 70s, Diana Tomback demonstrated the relationship between Whitebark pine and Clark's nutcrackers. And in the 80s, the grizzly bear study team started studying bear use of Whitebark pine seeds.”

She added, “Over the 20-year period, we found that 79% of overstory trees in the Yellowstone ecosystem are dead. And 34% of those trees are infected with white pine blister rust.”

But Robison said a higher percentage of trees in the Yellowstone ecosystem seem to be resistant to the disease than trees elsewhere. Scientists find those trees and harvest pine nuts from them. Seeds from those trees are used to grow thousands of new, blister rust-resistant seedlings. Those small trees get planted in high mountain areas. But you just can’t plant enough of them, especially across the enormous range of the Whitebark Pine.

Nature has an answer. It’s in the form of a bird—the Clark’s Nutcracker. It collects the seeds and buries them to use later in the season.

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Rickets pointed out why that behavior by the bird is so important. He said, “But in the wintertime, they wouldn’t find them all.”

“Essentially the Clark’s Nutcracker is planting the seeds,” said Retired Yellowstone Biologist Doug Smith.

The bird’s behavior means the new, disease-resistant trees will be spread across the landscape from small groups of trees planted in the high mountain areas. Smith says saving the tree saves the bird, because of the close relationship between the two species. But more than the nutcracker and the tree are affected by the effort. Bears, squirrels, and other animals depend on the large Whitebark seeds for food.

Smith said, “If it’s a bad Whitebark Pine year, the bears go to low elevation. They might even tangle with people more.”


Robison added that there’s another benefit to a healthy Whitebark forest. She said, “Whitebark Pine traps snow and allows it to slowly melt over the summer, so we get longer stream flows over the summer, which is great for fish and wildlife, but also outdoor recreationists.”

“Whitebark is high elevation. It’s this out of the way, hard to get to, in a way, an isolated ecosystem,” said Smith.

“Being in a Whitebark Pine forest and walking through it is amazing,” said Robison.

In spite of the remoteness of many Whitebark forests, thanks to Yellowstone, Smith said you can get into a Whitebark grove pretty easily.

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“Dunraven Pass in Yellowstone, Craig’s Pass are all high, and you know, almost 9,000 feet for one, 8,000 feet for the other. You go to Dunraven Pass, get out of your car, look around, most of everything you see are Whitebark Pine.”

Robison said, “It’s just a beautiful environment. It gives you this sense of peace.”

But Smith said the remote nature of the habitat and somewhat esoteric research means the general public is uninformed about the bird and the tree. He said, “A lot of people didn’t know about what’s going on.”

So Smith went to Rickets to ask for funding to study the habitat and discover a way to save the tree. Rickets was impressed. He said, “So when I got the whole story, I said to Doug, Doug, we’ve got to have a video of this.”

FULL INTERVIEW: Joe Ricketts on Whitebark Funding

FULL INTERVIEW: Joe Rickets on Whitebark Funding

His reason was simple. He said, “I know that once people know and understand how an ecosystem works, and how a species works on that ecosystem, they’re interested. But you’ve got to get them interested to make them put forth any effort to keep it going.”

There are now two videos created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Those films explain the entire Whitebark habitat and recovery effort. You can see one online now at the Save the Whitebark Pine website or via this link.

The other film will be shown in Yellowstone visitor centers beginning in the spring of 2024. Ricketts’ foundation is paying for the film and new projection equipment to show it.


FULL INTERVIEW: Hillary Robison on why recovery efforts will work

FULL INTERVIEW: Hillary Robison on why recovery efforts will work

Ricketts has a long history of funding environmental projects. He said he was first inspired to support environmental efforts when he read the book, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, published in 1962.

He said, “I always said to myself. If I ever have the opportunity, if I ever get rich enough, one of the things I will do is start a conservation effort.”

His foundation has also paid for recovery efforts of Trumpeter Swans in Yellowstone and now he said, he is ready to take on this huge new project. He said he believes the effort will take at least a generation.

He added, “I’ve got grandkids I think are going to continue to keep Ricketts Conservation Foundation going.”

Smith said people should take the time to drive to Yellowstone to visit the Whitebark forests. He said, “Just go there and you feel better.”

FULL INTERVIEW: Doug Smith on viewing Clark's Nutcrackers

FULL INTERVIEW: Doug Smith on viewing Clark's Nutcrackers