Whitebark pine cone.
Whitebark pine cone. Credit: Bryant Olsen

A group of researchers from 12 universities has recently published a paper that takes a look at the influence animals have on carbon storage and exchange — an influence they say is often overlooked despite the prevalence of discussion on how plants impact carbon storage. Among the examples discussed in “Animating the Carbon Cycle,” published in Ecosystems, is an issue that American Forests has been working to combat.

We’ve written before (here and here, for example) about the effect that mountain pine beetles have had on carbon storage — and, consequently, on climate change — in the western United States. As winters become warmer, these beetles are able to thrive later into the year and at higher elevations. Populations have exploded and that’s been bad news for pine trees, including the whitebark pine, an important foundation species upon which many other species in the ecosystem depend. As the trees die, their carbon storage potential is also lost and carbon released into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse effects, in a continuing feedback loop.

Mountain pine beetle.
Mountain pine beetle. Credit: WBUR

The new paper touches upon the effect the beetles have had on the carbon cycle, and puts it in some new perspective: The authors say that the loss of trees triggered by the beetle outbreak in the West has “decreased net carbon balance on a scale comparable to British Columbia’s current fossil fuel emissions.”

“We’re not saying that managing animals will offset these carbon emissions,” lead author Oswald Schmitz says in a Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies press release. “What we’re trying to say is the numbers are of a scale where it is worthwhile to start thinking about how animals could be managed to accomplish that.”

At American Forests, we’re doing what we can to keep the beetle epidemic from completely decimating whitebark pine. That includes the patches we’re putting on healthy trees to mimic the beetles’ own natural signal to other beetles that a tree is full. By saving as many healthy whitebark pines as we can — with your help — we are working to restore this important ecosystem.