Nancy Bockino- Whitebark Conservation

A woman in climbing gear pokes out of the top of a tree to place a cage on the cones.
Nancy covers developing cones with a protective wire mesh.

C. Wann

People on skis look up at a whitebark pine in the snow.
Whitebark Warriors assess a whitebark pine in winter.

C. Wann

As a child of a science teacher and naturalist, I grew up studying the natural world. Working as a field ecologist for the past 28 years, I have had the honor of contributing to the conservation of our precious resources and to the scientific knowledge that promotes good management decisions. I am awed by the gifted scientists who have defined the art of ecology, land management and commitment of caring for the earth. Their commitment and dedication inspires me. Most of my work focuses on whitebark pine conservation in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).

Whitebark are extraordinary pines that thrive at high elevations and in rugged places where few other plants can survive. They are the elders of the mountains we all love. We find them growing in our favorite wild places. They grace the ridges and steep slopes, defining high elevation forests and alpine slopes. As a keystone species, their outspread canopies are a roof top to the Rocky Mountains. They grow slowly and live long. They endure wind and cold for hundreds of years until sometimes, only a single live branch remains. By capturing and shading snow, they help release precious spring snow melt more slowly while providing food and shelter for other plants and animals. Whitebarks have a farreaching and profound impact on those living beneath them.
Biologists stand at the base of a tall whitebark pine.
Nancy inspects a brood tree, a whitebark attacked by mountain pine beetles.

C. Wann

In the last 24 years, we have witnessed the alarming loss of up to 90% of the mature overstory of whitebark in the GYE, including Grand Teton National Park. The story of the whitebark’s staggering decline has three main characters. The first is a tiny predator, the mountain pine beetle, an insect native to this forest and as small as a grain of rice. The second character is the nonnative white pine blister rust, a fungus that strangles a tree as it cracks its bark, destroying the tree’s circulatory system and killing branches that produce cones. The third character is us, the humans, who both introduced the blister rust and warmed the climate. Whitebarks are increasingly stressed by drought while both blister rust and mountain pine beetles are thriving in the warming climates; together these factors combine and escalate to unprecedented loss.
A wire cage is placed around cones on the tree.
Mature cones bearing seeds for the future.

C. Wann

My small and dedicated team of Whitebark Warriors walks thousands of miles in remote, rugged places each season doing conservation work. Supported by an incredible partnership between Grand Teton National Park, the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, and the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, our work includes critical long-term collaboration among land managers and researchers in the GYE and throughout the distribution of whitebark. We work to protect the precious remaining trees that bear the seeds of the future alpine forest by placing insect pheromone patches to deter the mountain pine beetle. We collect bushels of cones for replanting and gather pollen and other plant materials to support the Intermountain Region Genetic Restoration Program in their work to test for and produce blister rust resistant seedlings for replanting. We collect data to monitor, document, and research whitebark’s mortality, damage, regeneration, and interactions with other vegetation. We assess the landscape-level condition of whitebark stands and write the GYE-wide management strategies, updating them with new data and research findings. We participate in conferences, and produce videos, photos, and written pieces to educate. Visit to enjoy some of this work.
A bird with a sharp bill perches on a branch.
The Clark's nutcracker uses it's sharp bill to extract seeds from whitebark pinecones. They bury large numbers of seeds for winter food. Some of these cached seeds are not recovered and sprout into new trees.
One of the specialized tasks of the Whitebark Warriors is protecting and then later collecting seed cones. Like any day of whitebark field work, a day of cone work begins days before, understanding the weather patterns and checking sites for cones. For cone work not only do we need the weather to be dry and lightning free, but we also need winds less than 25 mph. All whitebark field work requires an “alpine start”, waking at 3–4 am to provide time to hike to the far away whitebark stands, often racing afternoon winds, thunderstorms, and/or snow that will become too soft for traveling on. We pack the night before, using a checklist to avoid forgetting one of the many items that fill our large and heavy packs. We hike many miles in the morning light as quickly as we can.
A biologist balances on a thin branch using a stick to reach for cones at the end.
Balancing on thin branches to retrieve mature cones.

C. Wann

Whitebark cones must be covered with wire mesh in June and July and left to finish growing until September. We call this first step caging. If we do not cage the cones, the Clark’s Nutcrackerwill take each and every seed and cache them far and wide, as that is his very important job. We only cage a few cones in each tree as to leave some for these birds. This amount is based on research and the ethic we follow to allow for the continued natural propagation of trees and the feeding of the busy alpine forest engineer, the Clark’s nutcracker.

Whitebark cones grow at the very top of the tree. The top of a whitebark tree doesn’t have a main trunk, but instead many small branches. Each team member is a certified, well-trained tree climber. I have 17 years of tree climbing experience and other members of the team have 7 years; however, regardless of experience, the task of gathering the cones is always a challenge and requires training, bravery, strength, and composure.
A person peeks out of the top of a tree.
Bravery and skill are required working in trees high above the ground.

C. Wann

Before the team begins climbing each tree, we perform a standardized inspection: rating the tree’s hazards; inspecting our equipment; and reviewing our plan, communication, and safety system. Getting into the tree requires climbing a rope that we install from the ground. This seemingly “magic trick” technique utilizes specialized equipment and allows us to safely and quickly ascend the tree without damaging the branches.

Once in the tree, we lovingly call “the green room”, it is hard to move about with sticky sap and branches catching your clothing, ropes, and even untying your shoelaces. We use multiple safety lines as we proceed to the top of the tree. In very large trees, two team members work together to get the cages to the top. After the cages are placed or the cones collected, we rappel back to the ground covered in sap and bark dust to begin again in another tree. But
not before experiencing a moment of joy and gratefulness for the chance to spend time in the most unusual and beautiful place, high above the ground in
the crown of this most magnificent alpine elder.
A woman rappels down a tree using climbing ropes.
Nancy rigged to climb into the upper branches of a whitebark pine.

C. Wann

My commitment to caring for the Earth and the ancient trees that grace her steepest places, is unwavering. Conserving whitebark pine is crucial to the resilience and health of the ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains, water conservation in the West, and the stability of our wild places. I will have been successful if long from now future generations can meet and fall in love with the whitebark pine, drink the water they protect, and rest in their shelter on a cold windy winter adventure or enjoy the shade from their branches on a hot summer hike.

Nancy Bockino, Whitebark Pine Ecologist
Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative Partner

Last updated: March 20, 2023

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