Whitebark pine vulnerability to climate-driven mountain pine beetle disturbance in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem


  • Corresponding Editor: A. D. McGuire.


Widespread outbreaks of mountain pine beetles (MPB) are occurring throughout the range of this native insect. Episodic outbreaks are a common occurrence in the beetles' primary host, lodgepole pine. Current outbreaks, however, are occurring in habitats where outbreaks either did not previously occur or were limited in scale. Herein, we address widespread, ongoing outbreaks in high-elevation, whitebark pine forests of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where, due to an inhospitable climate, past outbreaks were infrequent and short lived. We address the basic question: are these outbreaks truly unprecedented and a threat to ecosystem continuity? In order to evaluate this question we (1) present evidence that the current outbreak is outside the historic range of variability; (2) examine system resiliency to MPB disturbance based on adaptation to disturbance and host defenses to MPB attack; and (3) investigate the potential domain of attraction to large-scale MPB disturbance based on thermal developmental thresholds, spatial structure of forest types, and the confounding influence of an introduced pathogen. We conclude that the loss of dominant whitebark pine forests, and the ecological services they provide, is likely under continuing climate warming and that new research and strategies are needed to respond to the crisis facing whitebark pine.