Young whitebark pines grow among the skeletons of their progenitors.
From a ridge above Gunsight Pass in the upper Gros Ventre River of Wyoming, the skeletons of whitebark pine trees dominated the landscape. The view in front of me stretched miles to Togwatee Pass between Dubois and Moran, Wyoming, and across the vast scene, I could see entire mountainsides, once green with the whitebark pine, now the ghostly gray of dead wood. Millions of trees, across hundreds of thousands of acres were dead.
Once beautiful trees, often with unique shapes, these denizens of high country had succumbed to the larvae of a tiny beetle. The trees and the beetles had been doing this dance for millennia, but at least as far as modern man is concerned, this was the first time the dance card decidedly favored the beetle.
Normally, the beetles are kept under control through severe winter weather. When mountain temperatures slip down to minus 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit and stay there for several days, many overwintering beetles are killed, keeping the population in check. More than a decade ago, several sequential warm winters allowed the beetle population to grow until they overran their primary food supply, whitebark pine. Very few mature whitebark pine (with diameter over eight inches at chest height), a hallmark species of higher elevations, survived the holocaust, leaving behind entire eerie forests of dead trees.
At the time, this was considered an ecological disaster. Not only for the loss of the trees themselves, but because of their impacts on two other species that appeared dependent on the whitebark pine and the copious pine nuts that they produced. The first species was a bird, the Clark’s nutcracker, a member of the Corvid family (ravens, crows, jays). Clark’s nutcrackers survive largely on whitebark pine nuts. They store tens of thousands of nuts each fall in anticipation of winter. In turn, grizzly bears had come to depend on the nutcracker caches as a primary food source during the critical autumn months when they need to put on weight fast. What would happen to these species?
As I watched a pair of Clark’s nutcrackers on top of this ridge, I contemplated this. Clearly, Clark’s nutcrackers have survived the challenge. Grizzly bears, despite their recent relisting (more political than biological) seem to have adapted as well. And along the ridge young whitebark pines thrived among their elder dead. These trees must have been youngsters during the beetle blight, too small to interest the beetles.
Shortly after entire hillsides of whitebark pines began succumbing to the beetle, I wrote a nature column speculating that although this might have some short-term consequences, perhaps there would be some long-term benefits such as aspen rejuvenation. Aspen forests have been dramatically declining throughout the West in the last century, partly due to encroachment by conifers such as whitebark pines. Maybe, with entire forests of whitebark pine laid low, aspen would get a chance at resurgence and in elevations where they would be less vulnerable to capricious climate change. Below the ridge, I could see several large stands of young aspens growing thick among the whitebark pine skeletons that seemed to substantiate that thought.
I left that ridge a bit more convinced that Nature is more resilient than we give her credit for. We are right to worry and to do what we can to reduce manmade catastrophes, but in the long run, change is a natural state and if we give Nature room, she will usually find her way.
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.
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. Go figure.
"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.
"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:
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