An innovative aerial assessment of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem mountain pine beetle-caused whitebark pine mortality


  • Corresponding Editor: C. D. Allen.


An innovative aerial survey method called the Landscape Assessment System (LAS) was used to assess mountain pine beetle (MPB; Dendroctonus ponderosae)-caused mortality of whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) across the species distribution in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE; 894 774 ha). This large-scale implementation of the LAS method consisted of 8673 km of flight lines, along which 4653 geo-tagged, oblique aerial photos were captured at the catchment level (a subset of 12-digit USGS hydrologic units) and geographic information system (GIS) processed. The Mountain Pine Beetle-caused Mortality Rating System, a landscape-scale classification system designed specifically to measure the cumulative effects of recent and older MPB attacks on whitebark pine, was used to classify mortality with a rating from 0 to 6 based on the amount of red (recent attack) and gray (old attack) trees visible. The approach achieved a photo inventory of 79% of the GYE whitebark pine distribution. For the remaining 21%, mortality levels were estimated based on an interpolated surface. Results that combine the photo-inventoried and interpolated mortality indicate that nearly half (46%) of the GYE whitebark pine distribution showed severe mortality (3–4 or 5.3–5.4 rating), 36% showed moderate mortality (2–2.9 rating), 13% showed low mortality (1–1.9 rating), and 5% showed trace levels of mortality (0–0.9). These results reveal that the proliferation of MPB in the subalpine zone of the GYE due to climate warming has led to whitebark pine mortality that is more severe and widespread than indicated from either previous modeling research or USDA Forest Service Aerial Detection surveys. Sixteen of the 22 major mountain ranges of the GYE have experienced widespread moderate-to-severe mortality. The majority of catchments in the other six mountain ranges show low-to-moderate mortality. Refugia from MPB outbreaks, at least for now, also exist and correspond to locations that have colder microclimates. The spatially explicit mortality information produced by this project has helped forest managers develop and implement conservation strategies that include both preservation and restoration efforts. Future research aimed at documenting and quantifying the ecological impacts of widespread decline and collapse of this foundation and keystone species is warranted.