Deep in the forests of Montana, life is slowly changing. To start, it’s getting hotter. According to the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, the annual average temperature in the state has increased 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950 and is projected to increase by 3.0 to 7.0 degrees F by midcentury. As climate change makes summers hotter and drier in the Northern Rockies, forests are threatened with increasing wildfire activity, deadly pathogens, and insect infestations, including the mountain pine beetle outbreak, which has killed more than 6 million acres of forest across Montana since 2000. Forestry workers are rushing to plant new trees in the scorched earth of an ancient forest.
Part 1 of a photo series on Montana forest communities scrambling to keep up with climate change: learning, responding, adapting.
U.S. Park Service biological science technician Teresa Byrd gently plants a whitebark pine seedling among trees killed by fire on Mount Brown in Glacier National Park, Montana. A slow-growing species that lives at elevations above 6,000 feet, the whitebark is an essential source of food for many birds and small mammals.
With annual average temperatures in Montana rising almost 3 degrees F since 1950, high-elevation tree species like the whitebark pine that were not previously threatened are now facing infections, infestations, and wildfires. Trees burned by the 2017 Sprague Creek fire stand along the steep trail to the Mount Brown Lookout Station, which overlooks Lake MacDonald.
In September 2019, Byrd’s revegetation crew planted 585 2-year-old seedlings among the skeletal remains of the 2017 Sprague Creek fire, because the whitebark pine grows better in ground that was recently burned.
Byrd, right, and Nico Matallana prepare gear and supplies for the journey up to the Mount Brown Lookout Station.
Park Service animal packers Jill Michalak and Jacob Ellis load gear, supplies, and whitebark pine seedlings onto mules for the journey up to the lookout station.
Matallana and Byrd warm themselves with hot tea and coffee at the lookout station before heading out to help plant seedlings.
Matallana organizes bags and buckets of seedlings.
A team of park service mules head back down the mountain after delivering gear, supplies, and seedlings to the Mount Brown Lookout Station.
With Lake McDonald 4,300 feet below, Byrd digs a hole to plant a seedling among dead trees.
Hikers walk through fog past a whitebark pine tree along the Mount Brown Lookout Trail.
Byrd finds a seedling that she planted a year earlier.