California's Bishop Pines Are Dying. Is Drought To Blame?
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This next story is a measure of just how bad the drought is here in California. A tree called the bishop pine has adapted to survive in dry climates, but now here it is dying off in large numbers. The drought may be just too much. From member station KPCC, Jed Kim reports.
KIRK KLAUSMEYER: Welcome to Santa Cruz Island. How was the boat ride?
JED KIM, BYLINE: Kirk Klausmeyer is standing on the dock of Prisoners Harbor in Santa Cruz Island. It's one of the Channel Islands, about an hour off the coast of Los Angeles. He's looking up at a ridge high above.
KLAUSMEYER: You can see some kind of dead-looking trees, some kind of gray trees up there. Those are what we're interested in. Why are they dying? How prevalent is it, and is there anything we can do about it?
KIM: The trees are bishop pines. Some of the island's pine stands are seeing 90 percent casualty rates. Klausmeyer's goal this trip is to photograph as many of the pines as he can. That will establish a baseline that he can check against future numbers.
KLAUSMEYER: We're going to hike up there. And I'm going to use this Google Trekker unit, which is like a camera, but instead of one camera, it's 15 cameras in one.
KIM: Trekker is a backpack version of Google Street View. It essentially creates 3-D photo journeys of trails. The unit takes pictures automatically. All Klausmeyer has to do is hike.
KLAUSMEYER: It's pretty easy to assemble.
KIM: Klausmeyer works for the Nature Conservancy. It's one of the first organizations to use Trekker as a research tool. Over time, scientist will keep tabs to see which areas are holding out better. That will give them clues to what's causing the pine deaths. Right now, it's believed water stress is hurting their ability to fight off bark beetles.
KLAUSMEYER: OK. Now I've just got to turn the whole unit on.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
KLAUSMEYER: There we go.
KIM: It'll take a few minutes to boot up, so this is a good point to learn a bit more about the bishop pines.
KATHRYN MCEACHERN: The bishop pines on Santa Cruz Island are what biologists would call a keystone species.
KIM: Kathryn McEachern is a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. She says the pines provide food and habitat for other life on the island.
MCEACHERN: As the pines go, so go the other creatures that depend on them.
KIM: Those creatures include island scrub jays that rely on the seeds from the cones, but it's more than that. The pines are sources of water for the island. See, fog commonly blankets the island. It condenses on the pines' needles and drips to the floor.
MCEACHERN: It's raining in there. You step into the pine stand, and you've got to put on your rain jacket or put up your umbrella. You step out of the pine stand, and it's dry.
KIM: McEachern says in a typical year, fog will give 25 to 35 percent of the water for this group of trees. California hasn't had a typical year for a while. Drought has meant little rain, also thinner fog. Fewer trees means less fog harvesting. It's a downward cycle.
KLAUSMEYER: There we go.
KIM: The camera pack is ready, and researcher Kirk Klausmeyer is hiking the trail.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
KIM: It takes a while to reach any pines.
KLAUSMEYER: Oh, there's one. So they basically look like a Christmas tree that's been left out much too long.
KIM: Then, they're everywhere.
Well, we're surrounded by these things.
KIM: We count 21 dead at this spot - non-living. The skeletal remains still hold some bright orange needles. Through them, you can see hanging pinecones. Those pine cones are the future for the species, and this initial data will help researchers know what to do with them.
KLAUSMEYER: If we start to see that these droughts are happening more often, we can think about trying to plant pinecones in locations where they're getting more moisture from fog.
KIM: First though, he's got a hike more to find those spots where the bishop pines are thriving. For NPR News, I'm Jed Kim. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.