June 18, 2018: I was finally packed. All the gear and food that I needed to live for a week in the wilderness was neatly tucked into my 80-liter pack. I was ready for the reign of dirt, sweat, and high elevation passes. After a long, windy drive into the Sierra, I met up with the crew in Yosemite. They were a group of straight-talking, courageous folk who could easily survive for months without showers or cell phones – happy to climb off-trail passes and navigate to dazzling alpine lakes.

High elevation research is not as easy as it looks!
High elevation research is not as easy as it looks! Photo by Clayton Boyd.

But they weren’t just here for the adventure. They were here to help. Without strong, intelligent crew like these, we’d never be able to collect all the data we needed from across the Sierra Nevada.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently deciding whether to list whitebark pine under the Endangered Species Act, and I am honored to be part of the team of scientists, including Phil van Mantgem (USGS) and Jonny Nesmith (NPS), leading the research for this effort in the Sierra.

We head out before the sun hits our camp and climb with gear-laden packs into the high country. Treeline is my favorite place to explore in the Sierra. The views put my life into perspective and the sense of wonder spreads to the horizon. I’m also deeply humbled by the fact that these places could look drastically different within my lifetime.

Change is afoot and the future of these wild landscapes is uncertain.

Crew taking whitebark data, Yosemite National Park.
Crew taking whitebark data, Yosemite National Park.

After ten miles, we drop our packs and look for the plot. It’s a talus slope where few vertical trees can grow. In extreme conditions like these, whitebark grows like a spreading shrub along the ground, often called krummholz.

I marvel at this species. They can live for over 1,000 years in extreme conditions. I can barely survive a week, during the summer, when gale-force winds finally settle to a cool breeze.

We scramble around on rocks for a few hours and finally locate the plot, which marks the beginning of a whirlwind of activity. We measure the plot dimensions, select trees for coring and extract needle samples. These samples will provide insight into the recent California drought impacts and help identify how climate change could alter whitebark’s growth patterns.

Eight hours later, the storm of activity subsides and we set up camp.  I collapse in an exhausted heap and look up at the vast, twinkling skies above. The sound of rushing snowmelt eventually soothes me to sleep.

July 9, 2018: I am thrilled. I finally get to hike the Teton Crest Trail! I’ve been dreaming of this for years, but I also can’t keep the twinges of worry at bay. I knew from the scientific literature that whitebark pine in the Tetons was struggling to survive the outbreak of white pine blister rust, an invasive tree disease that was introduced over 100 years ago.

Blister rust infections on whitebark pine in Grand Teton National Park.
Blister rust infections on whitebark pine in Grand Teton National Park.

Blister rust arrived by boat on infected seedlings that Gifford Pinchot and others ordered from Europe. The fungal pathogen spread rapidly throughout the US, killing millions of trees, and quickly became one of the worst tree disease epidemics in US history. Here in the Tetons, almost half of the trees purportedly are infected.

The first day of backpacking is always one of the hardest. Packs are the heaviest and the elevation gain is often the most extreme. By the time the sun sets, I am grateful for a rocky patch of an uneven slope to rest my head, and I barely feel the sharp rocks jabbing into my back all night.

The next few days are filled with jaw-dropping vistas, valleys of wildflowers, glissades down steep slopes, and breathtaking close-ups of the Tetons. I’m ready to move to Wyoming.

Mule’s ears along the Teton Crest Trail

But each passing day is also littered with more and more diseased trees. It’s almost impossible to look up without noticing a canker, the tree wound exposed during infection. This disease is not kind; it leaves few survivors in its wake. I could see the writing on the wall: whitebark is in danger.

Why should we care about one tree species when there are many others in the forest?

Whitebark is one of a few tree species that can survive the extreme subalpine climate and helps retain snowpack in the spring and early summer. It also produces high-fat, high-energy pine nuts that many wildlife depend upon, including grizzly bears, squirrels, and various bird species.

Overlooking the importance of whitebark in California could lead to major ramifications because whitebark helps sustain the high elevation watersheds that provide millions with fresh water each year. We simply cannot afford to lose this species.

Sometime this fall: All scientists involved in California’s Whitebark Status Assessment are meeting to report back on our progress. I look forward to this. It’s a brilliant group hailing from the Forest Service, the National Parks Service, and the US Geological Survey, all with unique perspectives on best practices for whitebark pine. The data we are collecting will be the primary guide for future management actions in California, but ultimately, the USFWS will make the final decision.

Training crew in Tahoe, California.
Training crew in Tahoe, California.

No matter the outcome, the impact will be mixed. If whitebark is listed as an endangered species, there will be a lot more protection in the future. But if it’s not listed, then perhaps an endangered species may be less imperiled than we thought.

For now, I remain hopeful. I am working with some of the most qualified, informed scientists and we have the tools to understand the system. But one question remains: do we have the social support to make the right decision?

Joan Dudney is a graduate student from the Battles Lab in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. She was born and raised in California. When she is not exploring the great outdoors, she is pining after it.