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When a good fire is a bad fire. Grizzlies and pine nuts

I’ve been working with a small chain saw on the trees around my upper cabin.  Most of my 6 acres is on a plateau above the main cabin.  That arcreage butts up to Shoshone National Forest.  The original owner of my cabin, Doc Firor, deeded that area to Nature Conservancy who gave it to the forest service.  That entire plateau extends for several miles and is prime elk habitat.Riddle Flat from across the river. Prime elk habitat

Almost all of the trees up there are Pinus flexilis or Limber Pine.  Limber Pine is a white bark pine, which basically means it has bunches of 5 needles.  The pine whose common name is Whitebark pine is Pinus albicaulis.  That’s the one that everybody is talking about when they say Grizzlies are dependent on the whitebark pine crop.   But Limber Pine seeds are just as tasty, and squirrels cache them just the same.  Whitebark Limber on left; doug fir on right

Pinus albicaulis and Pinus flexilis are both considered keystone species–that is, without them, an ecosystem can just cascade apart.  And both of them are being infected with an imported fungus that is the cause of white pine blister rust.  This fungus can kill a tree, and its killing massive amounts of Whitebark Pines in the Pacific Northwest.  The Rockies have not been quite as vulnerable because its so much drier here.  But with global warming, and the pine beetles, trees that are weakened by the fungus succumb quickly.My one room upper cabin.  No water. No plumbing.  Yes heat!

I was trying to find out if grizzs will eat Limber Pine nuts as well.  That was important to me, because many of my trees have the rust.  And I’m trying to find out how to identify correctly the rust, as well as how to treat the trees.  Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone.  Dead whitebark pines

I went to the National Forest administrative offices last week in Cody. They are all so helpful and nice there.  One of the supervisors lent me a new phamphlet and told me there’s a pheromone for the beetles, but nothing for the rust.  She said its awfully hard to determine the difference on the tree.

What I really want is a source of blister rust-free seedlings to underplant.  The bad news is that whitebarks take 40-50 years to begin to cone.  But I can wait.  The worse news is that if you can even find a source of seedlings, expect 50% mortality in the first few years.  In fact, the booklet has a really complicated formula to determine how many seedlings you need, based on existing site infections and super-overplanting for death.  The thing I think would be smart would be to do successive planting over a period of 5-7 years.  And since I have a test plot that could be a model for the rest of the nearby forest, I’d love it if the Forest Service used me for testing.  Robin at the Ag department told me they do test plots on private land often.

Meanwhile, I’m going on what’s said on the internet and in this phamphlet.  I’ve been limbing up by hand and by machine up to 6-8′ from the ground all of my trees (this is a several year project!), starting with around my upper cabin.  Since the trees are older, most of the bottom limbs are dead anyways.  But limbing up will provide air circulation and light, both will help the trees health.Before pruning; cabin is in the background

Another interesting thing about blister rust is the Ribes (Gooseberry) connection.  When the rust first came to this continent, in the 1930’s, they found that Ribes was a host.  So the government in their wisdom, decided to eliminate all the Ribes in the West.  But there are so many species of Gooseberry native to the West, over 150 in North America.  And Ribes is an important food for wildlife.  You could never eradicate all the Ribes, and that’s just what they found.

As I was doing all my pruning, sure enough, many many trees have Ribes growing right on top of the trunk.  Besides being a host for a nasty disease, I did have to wonder about other types of symbiotic relations between the two, for example nutrient exchange.  I haven’t learned about that yet.

Whitebark pines, including my Limber Pine, are an amazing tree.  Unlike most pines, they are not wind pollinated, but dependent upon the Clark’s Nutcracker for dispersal.  Squirrels too  cache the seeds but not as far.  They grow on thin soils, at high altitudes, and usually are the first to colonize in disturbed sites, such as fires and landslides.  Grizzlies depend on their nutritious content to fatten them up for winter, or satisfy them in the early spring.  Grizzlies can’t climb the trees to get the seed.  Instead, they are experts at finding squirrel caches and robbing them.  When I asked about my Limber Pines, a forester said that grizzlies eat their seeds, but they are rougher so they aren’t number one on the menu.  Obviously my plot as well as the forest next to me is just as important for the grizzly recovery.

The benefits of fire in this care are so mixed.  Whitebarks are fire-dependent.  Where fires have been suppressed, more shade tolerant conifers replace them and there is little opportunity for regeneration.  So they like that clear open ground.  But their cones don’t open with heat.  The seeds are animal dispersed, so there needs to be stands for their new growth, which means they like low- and moderate-intensity fires.  That’s hard to have in areas with so much beetle kill and fire suppression like my valley.  To add fuel to the fire so to speak, scorch or fire damage on trees that would otherwise live, increases their susceptibility to beetle-kill.After pruning.  Cabin is now visible. Deer will love this!

Regardless, I’m thinning away, hoping for more air circulation, light, and in addition all that thinning imitates a ground fire.  Many of the natives I would plant in California requires a good chopping back to the ground every so often to mimic fire.  That’s what I’m doing for now.

Good fires

If you live in the GYE (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem), you probably know your trees.  You need to, because most people burn wood here for heat.  And each type of wood burns different, with more or less heat and more or less ash.

Being a horticulturist, I know my trees.  But conifers are hard.  I’ve taken three conifer identification courses over the past 20 years.  There’s a place near Mt. Shasta in California that, within a one square mile area, there are 22 different varieties of conifers!

Luckily, there aren’t that many conifers out here.  In the Park, mostly what you’ll see are Lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta) because they grow on thin soils, which the park has because of all the volcanic activity.  Oddly enough, the dominant pine where I lived in California was also Pinus contorta, Shore Pine, but it looks nothing like a lodgepole.  Its twisted and shorter. Lodgepoles are called that because they’re nice and straight for using as a teepee shelter, or a lodge.Lodgepole pine Pinus contorta

Last year I was looking at some new Shore Pines around 8 or 9 years old that grew after the Point Reyes fire.  They were at least as tall or taller than the Lodgepoles in the Park from the ’88 fires.  Same Genus.  Same Species.  Chalk it up to much more water, esp. in the way of fog.  To distinguish the difference, they’ve added another ‘contorta’ at the end.Shore Pine.  Pinus contorta

In California, if we want a good slow burning wood, we use Oak of course, a hardwood.  But there’s no hardwoods out here, so my friend G___ who was a forester for 20 years, explained some of the differences.

First I went and got a permit to cut wood.  There’s plenty of beetle kill up our road towards the park, and every year more and more.  We’re doing the forest service a favor by cutting down the dead trees.  The main problem as I see it with the beetle kill is that there hasn’t been a good fire here in 100 years.  That and global warming as we don’t get the really extended cold temperatures in winter anymore that kill the overwintering eggs.  Massive amounts of beetle killed trees at the end of my valley

We went far enough up the road to find some lodgepole.  Mostly there’s Engelmann Spruce around my cabin.  That doesn’t burn very hot as there’s not much pitch in it.  The second best is Douglas Fir (not a real fir.  Pseudotsuga menziesii vs. Abies [fir]).  The one to get around here is the Lodgepole.  I suppose its because there’s lots of pitch.  My friend tells me that the old-timers say “Every fifth log, put in an aspen and that will clean your chimney.”

Lodgepoles are fire adapted pines.  They keep their cones tightly on the tree.  These cones need a really hot day (113 degrees) or a fire to release their seeds.   You can age a forest by the diversity of trees.  After a fire, of course you’ll have prime grassland as forage for wildlife.  Within the first 40-200 years, a dense canopy of lodgepoles develops.  As these trees die, or if there are fires, with gaps in the canopy, doug firs and spruces will grow with the increased moisture.  In the drier areas new lodgepoles will sprout up.

Last year we had a fire up the North Fork that burned for over a month.  That whole area is full of beetle kill pines.  As the forest service was closely monitoring it to make sure no structures burned, there was a tremendous amount of controversy over why they weren’t just dowsing it.  My neighbor kept saying “They plan to burn up this whole country.”  The Cody Enterprise  ran critically-toned articles (even though the town was benefitting from the influx of firefighters).  Sweetwater lodge after Gunbarrel fire

G___ had a good explanation for the public’s lack of understanding of the necessity for fire in the west.  “When your neighbor was born here, for instance, this country had already had natural fires and the landscape showed it.  Over time, with fire suppression, the people here came to feel that what they saw was natural.  Its not.”

If you live in the West, you better be fire adapted.  The West is fire.  If you buy in the forest, beware.  If you buy up a canyon, beware.  The trees, the plants, the animals and their needs are adapted to fire.Water snake after one month in burn area

The Gunbarrel Fire last year was just about to jump over the pass to my valley, when a freak snowstorm happened over labor day.  I heard the Forest Service was secretly hoping it would come this way.  Not to burn homes, but to help the wildlife.  The elk desperately need better quality grass; the beetle killed trees need to burn up; and the soils and animals need those forbs that only sprout after a fire.

I suppose as a botanist/horticulturist, I can’t help but say to myself when I hike in these woods:  ‘This place needs a good fire.”