Diana F. TombackDiana F. Tomback: biology professor

Diana F. Tomback, biology professor, has been studying a tree and a bird for most of her career. It sounds peaceful, bucolic. But the tree is under attack on many fronts, and Tomback is on the front line of its defense, warning that entire ecosystems and animal species are at risk.

The tree is the Whitebark pine, and the bird is Clark’s nutcracker. Together, the two seem to be holding mountaintops together and feeding everything from squirrels to grizzly bears.

Fungus, pine beetles and global warming

“The first major problem the Whitebark has been coping with is a fungal disease called blister rust that was accidentally introduced to North America in 1910,” says Tomback. “Meanwhile, the increase in the Earth’s temperature has resulted in outbreaks of mountain pine beetles throughout the U.S. and, though their primary host is the Lodgepole pine, when they get high enough, they absolutely prefer the Whitebark pine.

“The same global warming that causes pine beetles to multiply also doesn’t allow temperatures to drop enough in the winter to kill them off,” Tomback explains.

But is it a crisis?

Why is this an ecological crisis? The Whitebark pine is called a keystone species, meaning that it promotes biodiversity. It is also a foundation species, lending stability and structure to soil. Specifically, when Clark’s nutcracker opens the Whitebark cones and releases seeds, it feeds many forest animals. As the trees grow, they hold down the soil.

But the trees are in rapid decline, which has scientists throughout North America concerned. In 2001, the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation was created. Its board members include Tomback, experts from the U.S. Forestry Service, conservation biologists and forest fire specialists.

“This tree really is a poster child for the mess that things are in right now, and the mess that our western forests are in,” says Tomback.

Grizzly food

Recently, the issue gained national attention because grizzly bears were taken off the threatened species list in Yellowstone National Park. Many conservationists and ecologists believe the move was premature because one of the bears’ primary food sources, the Whitebark pine, is in rapid decline. “Its seeds are important for grizzlies because they are a prehibernation food,” Tomback explains. “The seeds are large and nutritious.”

While the grizzly bear issue has raised more awareness about the importance of the Whitebark pine, Tomback says the issue is much bigger. “Concern about the grizzly bear has helped get more attention for Whitebark, but we’re very concerned about the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. There are implications for the bear as well as the integrity of entire ecosystem.”

Raising awareness

Tomback believes immediate action could make a difference. “We feel that we should not wait for forests to be devastated. We should start planting blister rust-resistant trees now,” she says. “But it takes 50 years for a Whitebark pine to grow and produce cones. It also takes a lot of money. I’m trying to raise awareness while we still have time.”

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