Monday, 3 February 2014

In the American West, a battle unfolds over bugs, climate change, and the fate of an iconic species

On a cold, overcast day last fall, Jesse Logan and Wally McFarlane hiked up Packsaddle Peak near Emigrant, Mont., not far from Yellowstone National Park. They had to climb high into the forest, at least 8,500 feet above sea level, to find the trees: tall, majestic whitebark pines, which grow slowly and can live more than a thousand years. A light snow started falling halfway up the mountain, the flakes getting heavier and wetter as they climbed. “You gotta want it to get up in here,” said McFarlane, 46, a researcher from the Department of Watershed Resources at Utah State University.

The last time McFarlane and Logan, 69, a former entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service, hiked this peak, in 2009, they found the trees’ normally bright green needles turning shades of yellow and red. Now, just four years later, all the needles had fallen to the ground, and there were few signs of life in the forest. Even covered in fresh snow, which can lend anything a beautiful luster, the dead trees gave the landscape a bleak, post-apocalyptic aspect.

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