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More about Bears, Pine Nuts and Delisting

The Clark’s Nutcrackers are starting to hang around, making a ruckus with their characteristic nasal loud call.  They’re waiting for the Limber Pine cones to ripen.  The cones are still green; maybe a few more weeks.  But they’re anxious to begin their ancient fall ritual of collecting and storing seeds–tens of thousands each year–and incredibly they remember these locations.  The seeds that aren’t retrieved might just grow into young pines.

A Forest Service botanist gave me two hints when planting Limber Pine seedlings:

1.  Put two or three seedlings in one hole to imitate how a Nutcracker might have stored those seeds and

2.  Collect some soil from around a mature Limber Pine and place it in the planting hole.  That soil has the correct mycorrhiza (fungi) that is symbiotic with the pines.

I’ve been inspecting the cone production this year and although it seemed better than last year’s very low production, it appears not to be a boon year.  Many trees have no cones.  Others just a few.  I’d judge that around my home the production is going to be medium-low.

I was curious what the Whitebark production is this year.  Sometimes the Limber mirrors the Whitebark, other times it’s a good substitute.  In a hike up Windy Mountain yesterday, our last remaining live stands of Whitebark are up there.  There are lots of dead trees and a few young trees, but there are still some standing mature live trees.Grizzly cub

Whitebarks and Limber Pines cone at the top growth only.  Trees that are in the open will produce more cones.  Windy mountain has a fairly tight forest with upright trees.  Looking at the potential 2014 cone production, I estimated about the same amount as my Limbers. That got me wondering what the official report for 2014 of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team is from the transects they use.

The IGBST is reporting a medium high cone production for 2014.  They define a ‘good’ production of average of 20 cones per tree, vs. 5 cones per tree last year. But here is the catch.  Total mortality on their transects (read ‘dead trees’ from beetles specifically) since 2002 is 75%.    So there are 3/4 less trees from which to obtain food, even if there is good production on those remaining trees.

At least 75% of this Whitebark forest is dead; in other places on Windy it is more like 90%

At least 75% of this Whitebark forest is dead; in other places on Windy it is more like 90%

The IGBST did the Whitebark Pine study required by a judge before delisting.  They concluded that the bears will find other foods in the ecosystem and so can be delisted.  The states are pushing for that delisting status in order to begin a hunt, for which they can charge high dollars for a grizzly bear tag.

Recently I was at a landowners’ meeting where a county commissioner gave a short talk. He mentioned he was on the grizzly bear committee, representing Park County.  This man is no scientist.  He is a politician first and foremost; and he said to this group of landowners that the study ‘proved’ the bear is doing fine without Whitebark pine nuts.  Don’t believe it.  He was simply chanting the line that politicians and state managers have been saying for years in order to delist.griz

I firmly disagree with delisting the Grizzly.  The bear has been dependent on these nuts for making ‘brown fat’ for hibernation.  Without this nut you can be sure to see the Greater Yellowstone Grizzly wandering into the bottomlands where more people live, eating foods like Russian Olive nuts that grow in the drainages, or even livestock.

There are several reasons why I am NOT for delisting the Grizzly:

1.  Grizzly bears are highly intelligent animals, at least as smart as the Great Apes, which puts them on par with humans.

2.  Bears primary food sources–pine nuts and cutthroat trout–are compromised

3.  Climate Change is a big unknown for food for these large carnivores.  Moths that the bears rely on are also a fragile food given pesticides loads in the prairie states.

and one of the most important reasons:

4.  Bears confined to the GYE do not, at this point, have adequate corridors for genetic diversity and may over time die out.   The IGBST delisting plan calls for flying in bears to the ecosystem if and when genetic diversity is compromised.  I’ll say that again  “FLYING IN BEARS”!

To compensate for reduced primary foods, as well as provide a buffer for climate change and provide genetic diversity, bears need to be able to move in and out of the GYE. Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) targets this need.  Presently there are large bear unoccupied areas of this natural corridor; swaths of public and private lands that were formerly bear territory (Central Idaho Complex is an unoccupied example).

It took over 30 years to bring the GYE grizzly numbers up to about 650 bears, from less than 200.  If delisting, and hunting, returns, it won’t be long before those numbers begin to decline again.

Grizzly bears are not just critical to the ecosystem.  They provide something critical to man–the power of the Present moment.  There is nothing more wonderful than that ‘alive’ feeling of walking through woods where grizzly bears at present.  The grizzly bears gift to man is the Power of the Present.  Let us honor that.

This tree has a blaze and to the left a bear left its own blaze

This tree has a blaze and to the left a bear left its own blaze

Fall is a’coming

The Clark’s Nutcrackers are congregating, waiting for the Limber Pine cones to ripen.  You can tell they’ve arrived as they are a noisy bunch.  As Jays, they are super-intelligent birds.  Every year they cache tens of thousands of seeds and are able to memorize the location of their stashes.  Clark Nutcrackers have a distinctive ‘wing-whirl’, which is a loud noise they make when flying.  Although the pine cones aren’t ready yet, they seem anxious, waiting for just the right moment to steal the seeds away from the waiting red squirrels who also cache the cones for winter food.  I’ve been watching the birds  eating insects while they while away their time.

This year is not only a bad cone year for White Bark pines, but the Limber Pine cone production is  down as well.  This bodes poorly for bears.  But the good news is that with all the rain we’ve had, the berry crop is up.  The chokecherry crop is one of the best in years and I’m waiting with my trail cam for some bears to spend time stripping the berries off the branches before the birds get to them.  The bears seem to know the exact time when they’re ripe, and come around for that week only. And with all the beetle kill, the forests are opening up and changing.  I’ve seen new understories packed with chokecherry bushes–all full of cherries.  

Grizzly bears evolved in the plains.  They can’t climb trees like their forest adapted cousins, the black bears, and their massive claws were meant to dig out roots.  Pushed from their native habitat into the mountains, they prefer burn areas and meadows, places that emulate their native past.  Our mountain forests are rapidly changing with all the downed timber, creating good habitat for the Great Bear.

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

The little forest next to my house is a perfect example and a fine study area of a rapidly evolving landscape.  With seven springs emerging from the limestone base, there is sufficient water ground water.  The  old growth Englemann Spruce are dead and dying, falling to the ground and leaving large openings where new chokecherry bushes, dogwoods, raspberries, gooseberries, and aspens are rapidly emerging.  This is an area we specifically asked the Forest Service NOT to put in their logging plans.

In contrast, the lands adjacent to the springs are private and were logged by the homeowners through the State Forestry Office (who were concerned about fire protective barriers) 5 years ago.  Approximately 90% of the trees were cut or were blow downs.  This land too has aspens, gooseberries, and grasses–but much of it has a very high ratio, maybe 10:1, of invasives, particularly Canada Thistle.  The combination of moisture, sun, and rapid disturbance provided a perfect storm for the invasives.  The invasives rob moisture and space for other natives that might get a stronghold.  In the non-logged side, the lesson is clear:   slower is better and the forest can naturally restore itself with little interference by man.

 

I am a Tree Hugger!

I can proudly state that ‘I’m a tree hugger’.  In Wyoming, that can be considered name calling and a put down.  But why?  I love trees and really, everyone else should.  Without them, there would be no shade, no cover for wildlife, no food nor shelter for so many animals.  Our trees high up near tree line provide protection from massive erosion and mudslides in the spring when the snow melts.  Limber, Pinyon, and White Bark provide nuts that we can eat too.  Trees impress and awe us.  Stand in an old growth Redwood forest or amongst ancient Cedars and feel their Presence.  Its is a humbling and quieting experience.

The future of our forests, in general, is in question with warming temperatures.  Yet I attempt to be an optimist when it comes to conifers.  Conifers were around before flowering plants evolved.  That’s a long long time.  Even with the planet warming, I suspect they’ll find places to retreat to and survive.  But for now, I’m doing my little part on my little patch of land,  planting trees for, hopefully, future wildlife.

This year the CCD (Cody Conservation District) had no Limber Pines (the species indigenous to my property) so I went ahead and ordered Pinyon Pines (Pinus edulis).  Its a gamble.  My forester friend says that they are out of their latitude and if they live, won’t produce nuts.  The University of Colorado says that they are reliable to 7500′, and maybe even to 9000′.  I’m at 6800′ but a higher latitude than Colorado. We don’t get the cold temperatures we used to so I’m counting on global warming to help them along.  It will be at least 20 years or more before they produce nuts, if they do.  Its a long term experiment!

Pinyon pines and Douglas fir seedlings--can you tell which is which?

I worried when I was planting them and wished the CCD had Limber Pines.  Its so rocky up there.  Probably 2/3 rock to a tiny bit of soil for each hole (these are small holes too just the size of tree liners).  And although I’ve seen Pinyons many times, I haven’t noticed them in granitic and limestone soils. But the UofC said they can take lean, dry soil on sunny slopes.

After I remove the rocks from the hole, I don’t have any soil to put back in. That’s why this year, in addition to my moisture crystals, I purchased some top soil to add in.

This is top soil? Very poor quality though its all that's available here

Yet I discovered another wonderful place to get soil, especially since we’ve had so much moisture this year–pocket gopher tunnels!  These wonderful little creatures tunneled under the snow and left nice rock-free dirt for me to use in my holes.  They are the rototillers of the Rockies!

Pocket gophers make these tunnels, not moles

Another thing I learned from last years planting is that the Limber Pines especially want a little shade.  Tree seedlings like the cover of nurse trees.  Since I’m trying to plant in the open where I had to cut trees down, I’ll use a bit of shade cloth on my pines.  The Douglas firs, for some reason, were a lot hardier.

I did good last year.  I figured if I had 50% loss then I was beating the odds, but after reviewing my seedlings today, I’d say I had more like 25%-30% loss.  That’s great!  I watered every 2 weeks last summer, but skipped a lot toward the end.  There’s no water up there and I was carting it up by hand.  That’s probably when I lost some, although a few were nibbled.

cages and moisture crystals

This year I’ve caged every tree (to prevent nibbling), and last years’ trees I’ll water maybe once/month.  Then, after that, on their third year, they are on their own!  I’m also going to feed last year’s trees with some nitrogen this spring.  I really like Maxsea 15-15-15.  Its a natural fertilizer that will never burn, but it’s not available around here.  So Miracle-Gro will have to do.

Into the fold–working with Mother Nature’s garden

I’ve got big planting plans–at least for me, up here.  When I moved here, I was happy to NOT have a garden.  Don’t get me wrong, I love plants, designing with them and caring for them, but you know, it is work.  I grew hundreds of species of plants in my California yard for pleasure and to learn about them.  All professional gardeners, at least the good ones, need their laboratory.  I always said, it you haven’t killed dozens of plants and moved plants dozens of times, then you’re not yet initiated into the fold.

That being said, when I moved here, wild nature was my self-tending garden and Oh, what enjoyment.  It still is and forever will be.  But the itch remains, and I do believe we humans can be caretakers and tenders in a good way.  So this year, not only am I continuing the ritual of planting tree liners, but I’m adding a few things to my plant order.

First, the liners.  My elevation and environment is chock full of Limber Pines.  Douglas firs move in naturally in a process called succession as the pines die off.  Higher up on the ridges are the favorite nuts of the bears–White Bark Pine nuts.  White Bark Pines in the GYE are functionally extinct.  I think its about 70% are dead and the others are dying…first weakened and dying from Blister Rust and then the final blow is coming from the beetle infestations rampaging the West.  But the bears will resort to Limber Pine nuts (a favorite food for the Indians that lived around here as well) in poor White Bark nut years.  Limber pines are smaller, and more difficult to extract, but they’ll do to fatten the bears up.  But Limber Pines are also in the Whitebark Pine family and susceptible to the rust (a European import from the 20’s; we’ll say that’s NOT good tending and caretaking).  The beetles are killing the Limber Pines as well.

A beautiful windswept Limber Pine in the Clarks Fork Canyon

My understanding of White Bark Pines is that it takes 50 years before they make seeds!  Wow.  Probably Limber pines are similar.  So I’m trying to replant seedlings now for later with the hopes of them being around when I am not and helping future bears.

One note of worth is that my two oldest limber pines on the property, probably 200-300 years old, were riddled with beetles last summer and I wept.  Beetles like older trees.  Neither are red-needled yet so I’m dancing with prayers around them metaphorically.  One is questionable as 1/2 of it is dying, but the other, the very oldest, so far is good.  I put up a painted elk skull on it last spring to ward off evil spirits and evil beetles.  Maybe it worked.

I order my ‘liners’, essentially seedling trees about 2″ tall, from the local conservation service in town–30 in a bundle.

Last years liners Douglas firs and Limber pines

Last year they told me they didn’t have my Limber Pines in stock, but at the last minute they found some.  This year they definitely don’t have any.  So I am trying a BIG experiment.  I ordered 30 Pinyon Pines.  They say they can make it at this altitude (for sure I’ve seen them higher up in lower latitudes in Nevada), and since our winters are not as cold as they used to be, I’m giving it a shot.  Good nuts for bears in the future.

Polymer crystals are an essential when planting in dry areas without irrigation

But my old gardening bug seems to be itching, and I’m purchasing 5 bare-root elderberries from the nursery, as well as, get this, 2 plum trees.  The plums are a big experiment in Bear country.  I am not crazy enough to plant apples, but my neighbor has a pear tree and not only gets pears but the bears don’t touch it.  So I’ll try two plums and see how it goes.

As for the Elderberries, they are native to around here, both black and red.  When you see them in moist locations, the deer keep them munched all summer to around 2-3′!  Elderberries can grow 10′ tall.  We have a riparian area, and I’m going to plant and cage these from the deer.  Supposedly the variety can get 10’x10′, so after 5′ I won’t have to worry.  Good food for me, the birds and the bears.

Squirrels, Bears, and birds: What’s the connection?

The Clark’s Nutcrackers have been very busy over the last month.  So have the squirrels.  They’re both competing for the Limber Pine seeds that grow around here.  The birds extract and stash seeds.  The squirrels create middens with stored seeds and cones.  The bears let these animals do their work, then rob the middens.

Clark's Nutcracker

It is really amazing to watch the Nutcrackers.  They are so adept at using their beak to extract the seed.  Limber pine cones are full of sap, really sticky.  I’ve watched a bird work a cone, sometimes to just get sap or a bad seed.  The bird cleans it’s beak quickly and works another seed hole.

Squirrels too can work a cone very quickly and efficiently.  Both squirrels and Nutcrackers seem to know exactly which seed is viable or not.  I’m sure it has something to do with its weight.  Sometimes I find a cone on the ground with a few seeds left in it.  Invariably those seeds are empty, either with worm holes or they just didn’t mature.

Meanwhile, after working hard on caching all these seeds, the bears are coming around robbing all the caches they can find.

There’s a black bear working my neighborhood intensely, day after day.  His scat is everywhere,  mostly full of pine shells.  The scat even smells like pine nuts…you can smell the rich fatty odors.

Loaded with pine nut debris

Yesterday I drove down my driveway only to find a huge stump in the middle of the road.  I got out to move it, I looked up the hillside where it had rolled down from, and saw that this bear had completely worked over an old middens.  He’d turned over the soil so much that the chickadees were having a field day.

Dug out middens on my hillside near the house

What a nice circle of feeding and robbing…birds and squirrels feed the bears who feed the birds.

Squirrel above robbed middens angry at me. "I didn't do it" I told him

The Year of the Poor Pine Harvest

Well, what a drag.  After a week of frustration with my Bushnell Trophy Cam, I finally diagnosed that the camera is broken.  And the reason it’s a drag is because yesterday someone left a gut pile at the bottom of my driveway.  Here’s the story:

Early yesterday morning some deer came out to graze in the private pasture across the road.  It’s deer hunting season and I noticed a nice 3 point buck hanging with the does.   Around 1 pm I heard 2 shots coming from behind my property.  At sunset, Koda and I took a walk beyond my back acreage and returned via the main dirt road.  It was almost dark when we crossed over the cattle guard marking the forest service boundary line.  I petted the horses on one side of the road while Koda was busy in the ditch on the other side.  I went to investigate and in the dark I could see the gut pile left from the buck, lying by the roadside.  With my camera not working, all I could do was check the area in the morning, knowing that probably a grizzly would be bye during the night.  With the pile so close to the house, I made sure Koda and I stayed inside that night.

In the morning, after walking around the area, from the blood evidence, this hunter illegally shot from the road.  He waited till the deer wasn’t on private property, then shot him.  But the easy access was through private property, so he dragged the deer under the boundary fence and through my neighbors’ property to the nearby road just about 25 feet away.  I can’t say I hate hunters because I know quite a few.  Many are ethical and kill for the meat.  I myself like elk and deer meat.  But I do despise the ones that break the law, or are too lazy to walk or ride in, or hunt just for trophy, or complain incessantly about wolves making it harder for them to find elk.

What giveth, taketh away, and then giveth again.  My little buck friend saw its last day and had its last meal this morning.  But grizzlies are hungry this year.  It is the Year of the Poor Pine Nut Crop, and that is what fattens grizzlies up for their long winter sleep.  This grizzly gorged himself on the gut pile, then left a scat of his last meal or meals, which clearly consisted of rose hips.  His scat was full of rose leaves and fruit, and although rose hips don’t taste too bad, especially after a frost or two, they’re not gonna put much weight on the bear.

 

Bear scat consisting of lots of wild rose and hips

 

I felt sad for the buck, but it was a nice stroke of luck for this grizzly and I was glad for him.

After checking the area, I went for a hike down a spectacular secret slot canyon.  Its secret because most of the year there’s a stream running through it.  In summer the brush is so thick you can’t paw your way through.  But in the late fall, the leaves of the Cornus (Dogwood) shrubs are gone and the stream has dried up.  Its only about 50 yards through the 5′ wide canyon to the main creek.  The creek, surrounded by high canyon walls, is inaccessible except for this narrow slot canyon.  But the game know the way and there were grizzly tracks down through the muddy canyon floor.  I crossed the creek and came into a wide wooded valley surrounded by high granite walls.  Large Junipers, Douglas Firs and a few Pines populated the area.  Exploring the canyon, it was obvious a grizzly had been hanging around here for quite some time.  He too was eating rose hips, but he had been spending a lot of time invading middens for pine nuts.  These aren’t from Pinus albicaulis, the White Bark Pine, but Pinus flexilis which is also in the white bark family.  The grizzlies seem to have been eating quite a lot of these this year.  Even the grizzly who ate the gut pile had old scat nearby with Limber Pine shells in it.   Although Limber Pine has been hit heavily by blister rust and beetles, we still have large stands around here and apparently the grizzlies are taking advantage of them in a bad White Bark year.  They certainly are not as big and fat as White Bark, but they’ll do in a bad year.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the bears, how resourceful they must be, how they’re mostly herbivores, how they have to spend so much of their energy foraging for food with so little calories.  I’ve been thinking about those reports I’ve read this summer about undernourished bears.  I am amazed how they are able to make a living out there.  What a wondrous animal.

Limber Pine and Doug Fir seedling trees–reforesting my property

I finally got my tree seedling order.  I almost didn’t get my Limber Pines, but at the last minute the CCD found at least 1/2 my order.  Today was a frigid day, hovering around 35 degrees with a chilling wind–perfect for planting.  I gathered up my pick, several containers of left-over chippings from splitting wood last fall, a can of polymer crystals, and the plants and off I went to the back forty of the property.

What I used for mulch...leftovers from splitting wood

Since the trees were in tubes, just little things, I thought it would be no problem planting the 60 that I had.  But the ground is all rock, so planting just 15 today was enough.   I dug all the holes first, excavating about twice as wide as deep.  The depth should be no more than the plant itself.  Remove all the rocks, but save them for later.

For a long time now I’ve noticed and wondered why the limber pines seemed to congregate next to large boulders, sometimes even growing in a boulder pocket.  Today I solved the mystery.  Believe it or not, it was way easier to dig a hole next to a boulder—even next to one that had a tree by it that I had to cut down because of beetle kill (meaning there would be roots nearby).  That was because between the wind and snow, over years and years soil tended to pile up against the rocks.  Elsewhere, in the open, there was so little soil, mostly rock, that when I went to plant the tiny tree I had a hard time finding enough actual soil to refill the hole.

I learned fast and started digging next to rocks.  I also know that Limber Pines regenerate nicely after fires.  Although the pines themselves are not specifically fire adapted, after a fire when the birds cache their seeds, the seeds grow quickly in a newly burnt area.  With that in mind, I planted in the areas where I burnt brush piles this winter.  Those areas were also really easy to dig in.  Why?  Although there were still rocks there, there were NO roots to contend with from grasses.  The soil was thick and loose there.

Mystery solved!

One interesting thing that happened…I saw a nice start for a hole by a rock and thought to put a tree there.  I dug the hole around a bit deeper and uncovered a cache of meat!  Some animal this winter (the meat smelled fresh still) had cached several fistfuls of what looked to me like deer meat.  The meat was not chewed or regurgitated, but in slabs.  Koda immediately grabbed the chunks and re-cached them elsewhere.

Where the cache was.

In planting each tree, I added a small amount of polymer crystals.

This stuff is a good moisure keeper

I used these before and highly recommend them where it will be difficult to water and in order to give plants a start.  Since there is no irrigation nor water available where I’m planting, these crystals will absorb a great amount of water and expand about 5 times their size.  Then they slowly release the moisture.  Another but much more expensive alternative used on oaks in California is a product called Dri-Water.  But watch out with the crystals. Newcomers to the product tend to think they’re not putting hardly enough in the hole.  If you go over the recommended amount, the crystals ‘bubble’ out of the soil like an alien.

I filled the hole, being careful to keep the roots straight and deep, putting some crystals on the bottom of the hole, some in the middle after filling.  Tamped the soil down around the tree, making sure I didn’t plant the tree too deeply.  Never plant a tree deeper than its crown.  In this case, with the seedling so small, basically don’t plant it lower than it is in the pot.  Then I mulched the tree with my wood chips.  If you use a tight mulch, like from a store bought bag, then you have to be careful again about smothering the crown.  I’ve planted a lot of California natives and the one thing they are all sensitive to is crown rot.  Its better to plant too high on a mound so moisture runs off.  But in this case, in a state where it snows but rarely rains, planting on a mound seemed like overkill.  The chips are natural and loose, allowing air to pass through.

Burn areas were easy to dig in

Remember we saved all the rocks.  I took those rocks and placed them around the tree and over the mulch.  I’ve found that rocks can be one of the best mulches as they keep the moisture in underneath.

Lastly, I put a seedling tree guard around each tree.  Unfortunately they only had a few left of these at CCD from last year.  I’m used to using these in California on native trees in outlying areas.  They give the seedling a chance for protection against browsing.  I cut these in half because I’m having a difficult time finding them for sale around Cody.  None of the stores even know what I’m talking about.

Can you tell which are the Pines and which are the Douglas Firs?

The reason I like these is because they’re easy and also yellow, making it easy for me to find the seedlings to water them over the summer.  Of course, I can use homemade chicken wire ones; or take coat hanger wire, make an umbrella and throw netting over it.  Just make sure each year to raise the height to accommodate the tree growth.  But I prefer these simple plastic tubes.  I hope I can find more.

I’ll have to hand water these guys about every 2 weeks for the first year, even with the polymers.  If I succeed in a 50% viability I’ll be happy.  Natives are hard to start.  Probably the 2nd year it would be good to water them 1 time/month.  By the third year they should be on their own.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

The woman who married a bear teaches me about pine nuts

After we visited the bear cave in Yellowstone, Jim Halfpenny sat us down on a nearby log and told a story.

“When we first migrated north from Africa, ancient peoples had no idea how to live with cold, what foods to eat, how to make shelters.  The Bear was their teacher.  Native Americans had several layers in one story.  The first and simplest they might tell to the children so they would stay close and be afraid of bears.  As the child grew older, the same story would be told in greater depth revealing more teaching and wisdom.”

“This story of the woman who married a bear was told in some form all over the world where there are bears.”

Jim went on to tell this ancient story in great detail about a Chief’s daughter who married a bear, lived with the bear clan, bore him two sons and then went back to her people.  When she returned with her sons, half-bear half-human, she was now a changed woman–a wise woman with much to teach her people.

This is the story of why humans throughout time have respected and honored bears, and how it was Bear who taught Humans how to live.

I was wandering in the upper meadows this morning, watching the Clark’s nutcrackers poke their beaks in the pine cones and extract the seeds, stashing them in the pouch in their throats.  Sometimes they’d try and clean the sap off by rubbing their long beaks against the bark. Since all the cones were way high,  I looked for dropped pine nuts on the ground, possibly ones the squirrels and birds had missed.  There were lots.  But every one I opened was no good, the nut had never matured.  I tried tree after tree with the same result and I marveled at how the animals knew to let these bad ones go.  I figured that if my life depended on these seeds, I’d definitely go hungry.

When I had a big garden, I used to fight the birds for the cherries on my tree.  I tried netting, decoys, shiny objects.  But crows and jays are smart and they’d wait till the cherries were just perfectly ripe, then beat me out there.  I’d have only the leftovers.  Pine nuts seemed the same.   I began to think about the Native Americans in the Basin & Range and California traveling far and wide for the Pinyon Pine nut.  Or the Native Californians and their acorn harvests.  There were ancient tricks to this that alluded me.

I knew that when I lived in California, I used to collect Redwood cones unopened, then let them ripen by a window and all the 100’s of tiny seeds would fall out.  Perhaps…

I wandered a bit farther up the denser parts of the hillside and noticed an old middens I was familiar with.  In one of the cavities beneath the trees there was stashed 3 douglas fir pine cones, fresh this year.  And that gave me an idea.  I went back and started hunting for a middens of Limber Pine cones.  Sure enough, I found a really large one with tons and tons of fresh cones, unopened and untouched.

Limber pine middens.  There's lots more than shown and much is buried

Limber pine middens. There's lots more than shown and much is buried

Some even had the pitch gone.  There were cones on top and cones underneath.  I tried a few nuts.  These were the good ones!  These were the ones for squirrel for the long winter ahead.

The cone collector's home

The cone collector's home looking down on us raiding his middens

Then I remembered the bear story.  Bears are smart.  They do sometimes climb the trees for their beloved nuts.  But its a whole lot easier to let squirrel do the work and just raid his larder, and that’s what they do.  Bear must have taught that to the People.  That was my lesson for today.

Look close, I took this bear scat apart & there's pine nut shells

Look close, I took this bear scat apart & there's pine nut shells inside

Clark’s Nutcracker and some five needled pines

Every morning I take a walk on the open meadows above my house dotted with Limber Pines.  Limber pines are technically in the white bark pine ‘family’, which consists of all pines with a cluster of 5 needles.  So when people say ‘That’s not a white bark pine, but a limber pine”, technically they are right and wrong.

Pinus albicaulis is the latin for the White Bark Pine, which is in the white bark pine group because its a 5 needled pine.  The Greater Yellowstone is at the very southern end of Pinus albicaulis territory.  Its a white bark pine that grows at very high altitudes.

I live at around 7,000 feet and, although we have P. albicaulis on our ridgelines, my zone consists of Pinus flexilis, or Limber Pine, another 5 needled pine.  Both produce cones with large, tasty seeds.  And its difficult to tell the two pines apart.  The best way is to look at the cones.  P. albicaulis cones are purple and disintegrate on the tree.  P. flexilis stay intact, are the usual grey/brown, and fall to the ground.

In the mornings on my walk, there’s lots of chatter these days.  The Clark’s Nutcrackers are busy. Clark's Nutcracker Their wings make a whirlwind noise, but their raspy call is distinct.  I watch them take their long beak and skillfully pluck out the large seeds.  They do it upside down or right side up.   Between the busy red squirrels caching all the seeds (they are also amazing to watch as they work the cones like an ear of corn) and the birds, its a wonder there’s any seeds left.  The crop seems to be good this year, as most of the trees have lots of good cones with few worms.  If I watch the squirrels, they know which ones have the worms and which are intact.  But I can always find a few opened cones on the trees, low down that I can reach, that have some missed seeds to eat.  My problem is that the cones are so full of sap, I’m a sticky mess just for a few pine nuts.

The nuts are good.  They taste like pinyon pine nuts (which is a 1 needled pine) and are about as big.  Some of the best and biggest pine nuts I’ve ever tasted are from the Italian Stone pine, Pinus pinea.  Its a beautiful tree and commonly cultivated.  But the Limber Pine nuts are good too, just harder to get out because they are tucked way down inside.

Limber pine cone with seeds

Limber pine cone with seeds and lots of sap

Limber, White Bark, and the Clark’s Nutcracker have evolved a unique marriage.  The two pines are dependent upon the bird for seed dispersal.  Unlike the fire adaptation of Lodgepole pines, whose seed cones open with heat, Limber and White Bark pines disperse their seeds through the bird, and prefer to sprout on the fertile soils after fires.

I asked a grizzly expert at the Shoshone ranger station if grizzlies will sometimes eat the seeds of limber pines.

“Not usually, because they are harder to get out, but they will.”

Grizzlies will reach up for the P. albicaulis seeds; they’ll climb up; and they are smart and look for the stashes of red squirrels and raid them.

By the way, after getting some pine nuts out of the sappy cones, I’m full of sap.  How to get rid of sap on your hands:  take some vegetable oil and rub it around; leave on for a minute; then wash with soap. Voila! Its out.  On your clothes?  Use a little WD40 before you wash.

Pine Beetles, Spruce Beetles, and what to do?

The County Fire Warden and the State Forester paid a visit to my neighbors last week.  There’s some money in the till to help homeowners clear dead and dying trees from their properties.  Since my area is full of beetle kill, and getting worse exponentially every year, we’re sitting ducks for a big forest fire.  The fires are going to happen, and need to happen for a variety of reasons, and the number one issue of fire fighters is saving structures (and lives of course).  If we can help out beforehand, all the better.

My neighbors and I have been talking about the little forest that surrounds us for several years.  Its mainly Spruce (Picea engelmannii)–old Spruce–and they are being hit hard by the beetles.   In fact, one of my friends counted the rings on a downed large tree–185!  That’s almost 200 years old, the average life span of a Spruce.

The Douglas Firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) interspersed amongst them seem to be healthy for now, and all around the outskirts where there is light, as well as the areas where the spruce have fallen, Aspens are coming up.  The small forest is half private lands and half National Forest.  Its sits below a shelf of limestone where the springs run–our drinking water.  So the area is wet, and sometimes swampy.  The Spruce like this.  Upslope above the springs, it’s mainly Douglas firs.  Higher than that, there is less ground water and the forest turns into a mix of Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis) and Doug Fir.

I don’t own land in the Spruce forest so I was not a part of the walk-through, but I was told that the way the money from the State will flow is more reimbursement for the first acre around structures, and then the reimbursement percentage diminishes the further out you go from buildings.  The recommendation was to have one logging company do the whole job.  It wouldn’t be clear-cut.  They’d be taking out dead standing trees as well as clearing (probably burning) ground fuels.  The spruce are in such bad shape that there’s no money in it for useable timber.  Its good for firewood and/or log cabins.

My friend who was a forester for over 30 years cleared up some misnomers for me.  I asked him if it was true that standing dead trees were no more a fire hazard than standing live trees.

“True”, he said, “but trees with dead needles are like a torch.  Dead needleless trees are equally a fire hazard as live green ones.  What’s the real hazard is all the ground fuel.  Crown fires can’t usually continue very far unless they have fuel below to ladder them up.”

I made a point to mention to the State Forester that our small forest is home to moose, three species of owls, deer, turkeys, bears, and various obvious small birds and mammals.  Sensitive logging is imperative.

When they had finished with the Spruce forest, they showed up on my property and we walked to my upper area which is Limber Pine exclusively.  When I first got the property several years ago, there were no dead trees.  Last year I noticed I had blister rust, which I’m sure they’ve had for years.  But this winter I had several trees suddenly die on me from pine beetle.  I was anxious for the State Forester to see my trees, their health, and show me how to identify beetles and explain in detail their life cycle.

Apparently, the pine beetle has a one year life cycle as opposed to the spruce beetle which has a two year cycle.  The beetles fly sometime in the late spring, find a tree or trees (they look for larger ones), lay their eggs, and the larvae overwinter and feed on the tree.  The beetles make tunnels, called galleries, laying their eggs as they go along (and eating the tree as well).  The Forester found a cluster of infested trees on my property in one area.

Last years kill

Last years kill

He took an axe and cut into the bark, exposing the tissue of the tree beneath and showed us the galleries along with a beetle (quite small).

This tree is a goner

This tree is a goner

The identifying feature on my Pine trees is the frass(tissue or wood of the tree) at the base of the tree as well as the holes with pitch and frass where the beetles have bored and the tree is trying to ‘pitch’ them out.

Frass at base of tree

Frass at base of tree

If the infestation isn’t too bad, if the tree isn’t stressed by other factors such as drought or disease, then a tree can usually fend off the beetles by producing a lot of sap or pitch in the wound, just like your body might get rid of a splinter.  But between the extended drought years and the blister rust, many of my trees are succumbing.

Tree trying to pitch out beetle

Tree trying to pitch out beetle

What can I do?  Not much.  The pines that are dead no longer have beetles in them.  I can use them for firewood or leave them standing dead (better to take most of them down to reduce the fire hazard, although Limber Pines usually don’t present much of a fire hazard as they burn out).  The ones that have infestations this year I should cut down this winter and burn them onsite.  Burning will kill the larvae, insuring those beetles won’t fly next spring.  And the old specimen trees I want to save I could put pheromones on (He says that’s iffy at best) or spray with Sevin (toxic chemical) which works well.

In addition, I’ve noticed that there are very few young trees on my property, or on the Forest Service property next to mine.  This is probably due to a combination of drought, poor seed production, and blister rust, which has hit the young trees hard.  I suggested, and they agreed, that I begin a planting project of seedlings.  There’s no money for replanting in Wyoming.  Montana or Idaho might give homeowners money for that, but Wyoming doesn’t (not a heavily forested state).  I’d be planting for the future.  Pinus flexilis takes about 40 or 50 years before it begins to cone and produce.

One thing I can do is pray for 2 weeks of cold weather.  20 degrees below zero for two consecutive weeks kills the larvae.  We haven’t had that for years, and with global warming (or climate change, whatever you want to call it), that kind of cold is getting harder and harder to come by.

For now, it looks like the trees have ‘the plague’.

This tree looks like it has smallpox!

This tree looks like it has smallpox!

Of course, these cycles are natural in nature.  The Spruce will disappear and be replaced by Aspen, as well as young spruce and doug fir.  The Limber and White Bark are more problematic–between non-native Blister rust and native pine beetles killing whole forests, these pines contain nuts that are the fall food for Grizzlies.  They need the fat for their winter hibernation.  Pine nuts are to the Grizzlies of the Rockies as Salmon is for Grizzlies of Alaska; and as the trees disappear, another food source will be needed.  With warmer winters come shorter hibernation periods.  I suspect that will mean more Grizzly/human interactions and that, of course, means bad news for the bears.  Bears never are the winners in conflicts with humans, at least in the long run.

Last summer I spotted a government vehicle next to a nearby Aspen grove.  I stopped and chatted with the plant pathologist working on a 5 year Federally funded Aspen study in the Western U.S.

“The Aspens in Colorado are dying, by the droves, and no one knows why,”  he told me.

I asked about our trees.

“They’re just dying of the usual pests and diseases.”

Things are changing all over the West, in so many unpredictable, unusual, and new ways.  Dogwoods, Magnolias, and Redwoods once grew in Yellowstone, millions of years ago.  Twenty two different species of Redwoods were native to the United States.  Now only two species grow in just a tiny portion of California.  We’re in for some big changes.