Lodgepole Pines

These lodgepole pine seedlings grew naturally in Yellowstone following the fires of 1988. Today they are over 20 feet tall.

A few years after the Yellowstone fire of 1988, I was driving into the Park from West Yellowstone. The blackened landscape was still almost ubiquitous, but there among the charred remains of forests a tinge of green covered the forest floor—a carpet comprised of millions of one-foot tall evergreens—a new generation on the rise.

These lodgepole pine seedlings were the natural result of the fire. This species depends upon stand-replacing fire to maintain itself. The Rocky Mountain subspecies even produces serotinous cones, pine cones where the scales are sealed with resin. These cones can last 50 years waiting for a fire to heat them to the point that the resin melts and the seeds are released.

When the cones open, lodgepoles repopulate the site quickly. Seedling densities can easily reach 20,000 per acre. As the seedlings grow, they create a forest that is nearly impenetrable for any animal much larger than a squirrel. These “dog hair” stands also shade the ground so completely that little if any ground dwelling plants can grow, resulting in what I refer to as a “lodgepole desert”. Over time, these stands will self-thin and the forest will slowly open up as weaker trees succumb to the shading of faster growing relatives.

Lodgepole pines, Pinus contorta, are some of the most recognizable trees in the Western U.S. There are four subspecies and they can come in a variety of forms, including a shrub-like alpine form known as krumholz. Lodgepole pines have evergreen needles 1.5 to 3 inches long, grouped in pairs in most cases, although some subspecies may have one, three or even four needles in each cluster. Needles often have a twist to them as well. Cones are small and hard and each scale has a prickle on it.

In pure stands, lodgepole pine grows straight, slender and tall. A mature specimen may be 110 feet tall at 100 years although they may reach 150 feet tall and occasionally 7 feet in diameter at chest height (although 1-2 feet is more the norm). This long straight growth habit with few lower branches earned the species its common name of lodgepole as Native Americans found the tree to be the perfect support for their lodges or teepees. Today, this same habit is still important in producing utility poles and fence rails as well as long straight dimension lumber with few knots.

The scientific species name, contorta, is a little more curious for a tree renowned for its straightness. The twisted needles are part of the reason for the name, but it mostly comes from twisted and bent lodgepole pines found in subspecies in coastal areas.

Lodgepole pines dominate much of the western forests from Colorado to California and north to the Yukon, Canada. In Idaho, there are at least 2.3 million acres of lodgepole pine forest. Much of Yellowstone National Park is blanketed with this species as well, which is one of the reasons the fires of 1988 were difficult to contain.

Although lodgepole pine is a North American species, Great Britain grows extensive forests of it in its northern regions. Lodgepole pine has a well-earned reputation for thriving in harsh soil and weather conditions and that fit well with some areas of England. However, when New Zealand tried the same thing, lodgepole pine took such a liking to that island nation that it is now considered a noxious weed, one threatening several native tree species.

Lodgepole pines often don’t create the most aesthetically pleasing forests. However, they often grow where few other trees can providing security habitat and timber products where no  other species can.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho