Arriving in Montana for the first time from my hometown, north of Toronto Canada, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To be totally transparent I was equal parts excited and nervous to start the Conservation Across Boundaries course… definitely more nervous. I wasn’t sure what conservation issues would look like. Would they be similar or different in comparison to the ecosystems I am familiar with in Canada? One of the conservation issues we have been facing in Ontario is the invasive emerald ash borer. This species targets ash trees and causes high mortality rates within the population. The marketing and awareness in Ontario Parks and Parks Canada is comprehensive – warning visitors to not bring firewood or abiotic materials from other locations with the attempt to limit the spread of the insect. I was curious if I would be learning about species that were negatively impacting others.
While prepping for this course my Nana encouraged me to watch a documentary on Glacier National Park, where we will be going in the final stretch of the course. I was fascinated to see the conservation practices currently happening in Glacier National Park. The documentary briefly introduced me to some of the issues that the Whitebark Pine is currently facing. While watching I wondered if I would be interacting with this species or learning about it while out in the field. I also wondered if I would interact with any species causing mortality to a specific species and what factors might affect forest health. During my time backpacking in the Snowcrest Range I have been able to reflect and question the differences between invasive species causing devastation and native species causing devastation.
Our team of ten embarked to the southwest corner of Montana towards the Snowcrest mountain range with ALL of our belongings for… six weeks… in one van… and one… trailer. While I was admiring the surrounding landscapes that I have never seen before I spotted numerous tall, gray crowns of dead trees scattered throughout the tall, green pines. Not at all what I would’ve pictured if someone would’ve told me to picture a mountainside forest in Montana. Why are they dead? Why only some? Why not all of them? Was it an invasive species like the emerald ash borer? I began to ask myself these questions and wondered what caused such devastation.
It turns out we were going to do a case study on the tree I spotted. Our class material addressed how the Whitebark Pine is a fundamental, keystone species and the devastation that it has been facing over the past few decades. I learned that the Clark’s Nutcracker is a bird that has a symbiotic relationship with the Whitebark Pine, meaning they are both dependent on each other for survival. The Clark’s Nutcracker harvests the seeds and places them in caches just below the forest floor, and when the nutcrackers ultimately forget about some of the caches, it provides the opportunity for the Whitebark Pine to sprout from the spread seeds. The Whitebark Pine plays an important role in balancing and maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Their role supports many ecosystem processes such as contributing to high elevation ecosystems, limiting soil erosion, retaining snow melt, and increasing soil composition diversity. Whitebark Pine also plays an important role in animal species relationships, such as their diets (Clark’s Nutcracker, Red Squirrel, grizzly bears etc.), and serve as a nursery for other trees in sub-alpine and alpine zones (mountain hemlock, subalpine fer, engelmann spruce, lodgepole pine, douglas fir etc.). The native Mountain Pine Beetle has decimated the majority of the Whitebark Pine in the Snowcrest range, fundamentally shifting these natural relationships and disturbing ecosystem processes within the montane region (approx. 6000ft-7000ft) and subalpine (approx. 7000-8000ft) forests listed above. As much as I found it interesting to learn all about this tree it also made me sad, sad that one beetle could almost totally wipe out a species. Similarly, to the emerald ash borer these bugs are just trying to eat and survive but are causing detrimental impacts to varying ecosystems.
As part of class the following day we spent 20 minutes individually observing a deceased Whitebark Pine. Our group noticed a lot of mortality between 7000-8000ft, with only three live Whitebark Pines where we chose to do the study. The markings on the trunk and inside of the bark of my tree indicated it was impacted by the Mountain Pine Beetle, suggesting this was the cause of its death. Areas with such high mortality, like where we were studying, are called a ghost forest because of the sheer mass of dead Whitebark Pine as a result of the Mountain Pine Beetle infestations. I realized this was the same type of forest that I saw on the mountain sides while driving to the Snow Crest range earlier in the week… talk about a full circle moment!
The next day we hiked up to Honeymoon Park, along the Snowcrest ridge. As we went along we increased elevation by about 1600ft. Within the subalpine zone there was an increasing number of Whitebark Pine in comparison to the montane zone. The excitement I felt and the encouragement it brought me was immeasurable. I noticed the elevation has a huge role to play in the health and success of the trees. And just as I was admiring the trees I identified a CLARK’S NUTCRACKER flying playfully from tree to tree.
The full circle of education and experiential learning that took place out in the field is remarkable and continuing to happen as you read this. It was a special experience to go from first learning about these trees from a documentary, seeing them from a distance in the car, reading about them and then fully experiencing their life cycle. The variety of learning experiences has taught me the pure value of interdisciplinary experiential learning. The first nine days of the Conservation Across Boundaries have been the most immensely rewarding and intense learning environment that I have ever been a part of. I am grateful and honored to have been part of the 2022 cohort. From this experience I am left with many more burning questions… Why are native and invasive beetles treated so differently, politically? Are there international differences? Is the Mountain pine beetle impacting other trees? In other states or countries? And when can I learn more?!?!