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Hoodoo Basin…an Eerie Place and a Story

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View from a peak in the Basin

It was June of 2012 when a man approached me on the top of Dead Indian Hill asking for directions to Parker Peak. At first I was perplexed where this Peak actually was. There are a lot of famous Peaks in the Greater Yellowstone that people come to climb. Parker was not one of them. Then he explained it was at the end of Sunlight road in the Park and I knew it was in Hoodoo Basin. He had a strange urgency about him, and seemed driven by an unseen need to get to this insignificant peak. 

The hike to Hoodoo Basin, where Parker Peak and Hoodoo Peak form part of the bowl, is epic. I’ve been wanting to do it for ten years from the end of Sunlight Road., and finally completed it this week. It’s six hard uphill miles and 2500′ gain to the Park Boundary. Then another five miles of high meadows and up and down to the campsite below Parker Peak. The Peak is just a ‘run-up’, nothing special, except this year the only water source was a small pond generated by the last bits of a snowfield. The pond edge was laden with tracks of elk, deer, sheep and bear.

In the shadow of the eerie formations of the Hoodoos, I told my companions the story of the driven man who needed to get to Parker Peak (emphasizing Paaarr-ker said in an ominous voice). Based on some observations at the top of Parker, below is what I imagined his story might be….

See my notes on the Basin at the end of the Story…

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Parker Peak

Parker Peak….

I heard it held a mysterious Presence, a palpable vibration, an unmistakeable aura. Where I heard this, I do not remember. But it all began with the dreams.  The first dream was of a mountain made of crystals, a mountain that could heal. On the very summit of the mountain peak I saw, in my dream vision, a large petrified stump. I touched the stump and found its top was broken. I pushed the lid aside to reveal a hole that went deep underground. So I climbed into that dark hole, deeper and deeper, till I was within a maze of tunnels.  Almost spontaneously a little person appeared. I had no fear. It was if I knew this person, yet I’d never seen him before.

“Come, follow me” the little person said. He guided me through the underground passage, and although it was dark, a soft greenish-blue light emanated from his body, illuminating the tunnels. The little man stopped at a shaft of light that shone from an opening above. On the ground before us were bones, big piles of bones. A natural trap cave where animals had fallen inadvertently into from high above.

“Do you know whose bones these are?”

“No” I answered.

“Bones of animals past that once roamed these mountains. You were once here, hunting Short-faced Bears and Cheetahs.”

We continued on till the cave passage opened wide, revealing extensive views of deeply cut valleys and steep ravines.

The little man pointed. “This is the Center of the World, formed by Fire and Ice.”

I looked out over the land. It was dry, smoke was blowing in from different fires. The air was hot.

It was then I awoke in a cold sweat.

Using the Internet as my guide, I came to the conclusion that what I saw that had been formed of Fire and Ice was Yellowstone Park, and my viewpoint was Parker Peak. Parker Peak held a mystery meant for me to solve. Now I had to go there.

_________________

June. I packed up my car and drove the twenty hours from Chicago to Cody. From my research, the shortest route to Parker Peak was from the end of a dirt road called Sunlight. It looked easy from the map, maybe ten miles. I planned on a day hike. I’d take some water and a lunch, hike in an out during the longest day of the year so I had plenty of daylight. Now just to find Sunlight Basin. I inquired at a Cody, WY gas station and they directed me to Chief Joseph Highway. The highway climbed out of the high desert into the mountains.

This must be it. I thought as I approached 9000 feet. I turned onto a dirt road near the top of the summit. I knew Parker Peak was around 10,000. Easy climb in and out I figured. The road ended after a mile and I saw a distinct trail. I parked and began my hike. It was then I saw two locals hanging around a sign that said ‘Wilderness Boundary’.

“Is this the Sunlight Road?” I enquired of them.

“No. Sunlight Road is another seven miles down the mountain.”

I told them I was off to Parker Peak from the end of the road for a day hike.

“You have to get past the Bear Gate, but that’s not open to cars for another month. So you’ll have an extra 5 or 6 miles of hiking to the Hoodoos. Why do you want to go there.”

“Just need to get to Parker Peak.”

“Well, you can’t make it in a day hike. Do you have bear spray with you?”

“Huh? Do I need that?”

“Big grizzly area back there. Lots of other peaks around here that are nicer and accessible now. Why don’t you go to the Beartooths? Or climb some other peaks in the Park? Parker is just a walk-up. Not that interesting.”

“Just gotta get to Parker Peak.” How could I tell them. They just wouldn’t understand the magic of this mountain. “I’ll come back in August.”

It’s been three years since that day in June and I still haven’t made it to Parker. But the dreams keep coming and someday, someday, I just know, I’ll get there.

_______________

At the top of Parker Peak there is a large petrified tree stump. And the summit has rock striations made of clear crystals.

_______________

The Hoodoo Basin is laden with chippings of obsidian flakes everywhere. My friends hiked up Hoodoo Peak, a scramble on talus which I do not like. Then they easily walked the ridge about 1.5 miles to Bootjack Gap, the passage between the Crandall drainage (Papoose trail) and the Park. Large obsidian pieces were scattered all over the ridge. Hoodoo to Sunlight and Miller Creek to Crandall Creek were hard-trodden Indian trails for thousands upon thousands of years. Native peoples traveled to Obsidian Cliff (and other cherished spots for stone to work) in spring to obtain new material for atlatls and later for arrowheads. Just like the deer and elk, they ‘surfed the green’ or followed the green-up, gathering roots and plant material. In the fall, they probably stayed in Hoodoo Basin to gather pine nuts from the Whitebark Pines there.

Today about 70-80% of those Whitebarks are dead, stricken down by beetles. (See photo below). The native peoples are gone, but the grizzlies are not and they are dependent on these nutritious high-fat nuts to make brown fat for the long winter. It was terribly sad to see so many dead trees, and once again made me think about the future fate of the grizzly with a delisting and subsequent hunt so close to being approved.

In addition to obsidian material everywhere, I understand there were at least forty wikiups observed by Superintendent Norris when he visited the Hoodoos or ‘Goblin Land’ as he called it.  These wikiups are no longer standing but still visible. I searched for them but was unable to find any, although I saw one that looked like a possibility. The wood would be down in a pile and very old. According to Orrin and Lorraine Bonney’s classic ‘Guide to the Wyoming Mountains and Wilderness Areas’, in 1880 when Norris and companions explored the Hoodoo area they

…found on the North side of [Parker Peak] a favorite campsite of raiding Indians with its commanding view of all approaches and handy striking distance to the high passes of Crandall Cr. He also found gory remnants of border raids–white folks’ blankets, clothes, china, bedding in & around the 40 rotting lodges. 

In the four days we were in the Basin, we did not see another person. The country was very dry, so this usual summer feedgrounds for elk were barren of elk and deer. Only old scat was around. We did see evidence of one grizzly bear and bighorn sheep. I also had an experience with five Short-eared Owls flying low over my head that rates among my top ten wildlife encounters.

It was an amazing journey. Worth the hard work.

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Park Boundary Line. Looking out into the Lamar Drainage

Hoodoo

Some of the Hoodoos in the Foreground. Hoodoo Peak in the background

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The Headwaters of the Lamar River. Smoke from fires makes the haze.

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Dead Whitebark Pines in the Hoodoos

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.

 

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.

Reefs, Bears, and the Beartooths

On of the unusual features of this area are the ‘reefs’, long cliffs exposed in the mountainsides.  There’s a beautiful area nearby that I’ve been exploring this summer called Reef Creek.

Reefs

Reefs

A forest service road winds precariously up to the top of the reef, where you discover you’re now driving on a totally flattened surface.  You can walk to the edge of the cliffs and its a sheer drop down.  Parts of the dirt road even look like they’ve been paved.  That’s because you’re on pure rock in areas.

I’ve walked the entire road in pieces including the uphill.  I finally discovered the road’s end (of course, many people have 4-wheeled to the end without walking…but to walk it is to know it) at a small creek, aptly named Reef Creek.  Beyond is a well maintained trail that loops over a pass and back into my valley.

I hiked a few miles up the trail the other day.  The trail winds in high country, although fairly flat, and is home to abundant stands of White Bark Pines.  Alarmingly, most of the mature trees were dead from beetle kill.

White bark pines dead on Reef Creek

White bark pines dead on Reef Creek

I had seen old signs of grizzly scat with pine nuts in it.  I thought of the Great Bear and how difficult it must be to find viable cones.  Bears probably have their favorite haunts.  I imagined them returning here, only to find the cupboards bare.

I climbed higher and finally discovered a few niches of live mature stands.  There are young white barks alive among the dead, but they won’t be producing for 30 or 40 years.

I also encountered the newest addition to my tree list, Abies lasiocarpa or the Sub-Alpine fir.  Its beautiful smooth bark and christmas tree look make it easy to identify.  Abies, or true firs, always have their cones standing upright.  Picea, or spruce, have their cones pendulous (P in the Picea can stand for pendulous).  The botany lumpers and splitters seem to be warring again over exactly if there is a different species named A. bifolia that is almost a look-alike.  But for now, lasiocarpa is good enough for me.

Abies lasiocarpa

Abies lasiocarpa

In contrast to this scene of dying trees, I took a ride up to the Beartooths just two days ago.  I wanted to see this gorgeous area before the road closed.  I was not disappointed.  The mosquitos were gone.  And better than that, I spent the afternoon hiking at Island Lake and didn’t see one person.  The White Barks I encountered around the lakes there appeared healthy although I have never seen much bear sign in the higher elevations of the Beartooths. One of the WG&F bear specialists told me that there aren’t many moth sites they know of there so it’s not a frequented area by many Grizzlies.

The afternoon was warm and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.Beartooth in fall

Beartooths

Fish in the beartooths

Fish in the beartooths

Ahh, not a soul around

Ahh, not a soul around

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.

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.