The

New West

By Todd Wilkinson

Red means dead. This photograph by EcoFlight shows the extent of a dying whitebark pine forest high in Greater Yellowstone. Image used with permission of EcoFlight.

The New West: Of harbingers and a scientist ignored

For many young people today it might seem as if climate change has only recently become a topic of fierce debate and, depending upon one’s own world view, a subject ripe for deep denial.

“How can global warming be happening,” I heard one person remark in Bozeman, “if it snows on the first official day of summer?”

Intense discussion about the effects of climate change, in fact, have been going on for a long while, predating the arrival of members of Generation Z, those born between the mid 1990s and mid 2000s.

The very same summer that historic forest fires swept across Yellowstone National Park in 1988, members of the U.S. Senate were holding the first formal hearings on climate change in Washington, D.C.

When the late George Herbert Walker Bush was elected President later that year, his chosen director of the Environmental Protection Agency, William K. Reilly, and Bush’s pick for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, John Turner of Jackson Hole, accepted that the science of climate change was compelling and needed attention.

In many ways, the attitude of that Republican Bush Administration was more advanced than that of the Democratic Clinton Administration that followed it and critics today say critical time in adopting a strategy for addressing carbon emissions was squandered.

Many reports, analyses, computer models and field studies have been undertaken documenting average rising temperatures trending over time along with forests and marshes drying out, new diseases appearing, and water in river systems heading lower faster in summer. And yet still “windshield biologists” claim climate change isn’t happening.

One person who has influenced my own perspective is now-retired entomologist Dr. Jesse Logan who witnessed ecological changes long before many others did. Logan spent decades studying beetle outbreaks as a researcher for the US Forest Service. Today he lives in Emigrant where, as a passionate angler and backcountry skier, he’s paid attention to trends, not to fickle weather variations occurring year to year.

Logan predicted the loss of Greater Yellowstone’s whitebark pine forest decades ago caused by a combination of a pathogen called blister rust, beetle infestations (hastened by climate change), forest fires and a general drying out of whitebark forests that leave them more vulnerable to all of the above.

Whitebark pine produces tiny little nutlike seeds in their cones that nourish grizzly bears, Clarks Nutcrackers, and red squirrels. With grizzlies, those edibles high in fat and protein, help keep bruins well-nourished and for females in better health to reproduce.

Scientific colleagues of Logan’s, like Dr. David Mattson, now also retired and who spent years working for the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Study Team, have said whitebark pine has been one of the most important dietary staples for grizzlies in our region, fueling rising numbers of bears.

Now, most of the whitebark pine forest that existed a human generation ago is gone and the outlook for the trees that remain is bleak, prompting researchers to say that whitebark, as major seed producers, is functionally extinct, forcing bears to seek other sources of nutrition.

Logan built an esteemed career over decades that made him world-renowned. But he realized how serious the administration of George H Bush (elected in 2000) was about downplaying the effects of global warming on whitebark and grizzly bears after Logan was featured in a story in High Country News during the summer of 2004.

While he was widely commended by Forest Service employees in the field for expressing candor, it came to his attention that a high level official in Washington was upset.

“Everything I’ve learned to believe is that a free press remains the cornerstone of our Democracy,” he told me. “But all the media training I received as a senior scientist with the Forest Service is how to spin things in order to protect the agency.”

It was not unusual for Mark Rey, the former timber industry lobbyist and then Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for the George W. Bush Administration overseeing the Forest Service, to call up and remind scientists that “if you are ever asked about climate change, I know you’ll say the right thing,” Logan says.

“With climate change,” Logan adds, “I felt implicit and explicit censorship.”

Doug Honnold, a respected attorney now retired from the environmental law firm EarthJustice, represented conservation organizations that mounted a legal challenge to bear delisting.

Honnold helped prepare a proposal to give polar bears more federal protection, based largely on the argument that as the sea ice melts, thus eliminating the tool that bears use to access seals, they could be doomed.

In our part of the world, he and Logan wanted people when they think about grizzlies to ponder the rapidly diminishing presence of whitebark. On the land, climate change isn’t an abstraction. “It’s already here,” Honnold told me a dozen years ago. “Jesse is somebody who saw global warming many years ago and started studying it and modeling it and unfortunately many of his projections came to be true.”

About The Author

The New West, Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson has been an award-winning journalist for more than three decades and is best known for his coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian and The Washington Post. He also is author of several critically-acclaimed books. His column, The New West, was not long ago named best column for small-town newspapers in America. He is founder of the non-profit, online journalism site, Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) devoted to probing the intersection between people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

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