How to save the whitebark pine

The tree is getting federal protection. But plenty of people were already trying to save it.

 

Whitebark pines are unmistakable, with their stout, twisted trunks — shaped but not dominated by the wind — topped with clumps of needles on upswept branches. But by 2016, over half of those still standing were husks of their former selves, their fate signaled by flaming red needles, and then, ghostly gray trunks with no branches at all. 

The trees are fighting an uphill battle. The invasive blister rust fungus, mountain pine beetle infestations, changing wildfire patterns and climate change all threaten this keystone species. It was officially listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2022. 

The tree plays important roles in the ecosystem: Its branches create shade, which helps retain snowpack, and its roots hold the soil in place, preventing erosion. Whitebark pine cones nourish animals like grizzlies and Clark’s nutcrackers and serve as a protein-rich Indigenous food source. At a conference on whitebark pine conservation in 2019, the late Selis-Qlispe tribal elder Tony Incashola Sr. remembered snacking on pine nuts when he was growing up on the Flathead Reservation. “If you come across it in your travels, it was a treat to have,” the Char-Koosta News reported.

Monique Wynecoop (Pit River/Maidu), U.S. Forest Service fire ecologist, makes a gift of tobacco and prays at what remains of a 2,000-year-old whitebark pine tree named 'Illawia,' which means great-great-grandparent in the Salish languge, during a guided hike with members and guests of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation in the mountains of the Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana, in 2019. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are working to restore whitebark pines on tribal lands.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Whitebark pines span an impressive range of 80.5 million subalpine acres in seven Western states. Across that sprawling region, tribal nations, conservation groups and federal agencies have already made significant efforts to protect and restore the tree, even as federal protection has lagged. It’s been a candidate for protection since 2011 and was listed as endangered in Canada in 2012, but other higher priority species got the focus in the U.S. for years. 

Listing means new money and formalized safeguards. Fish and Wildlife Service funding for listed species can be used to boost new and ongoing research into things like blister rust resilience. The listing allows management and restoration activities in places where they might otherwise be prohibited, such as wilderness areas, and makes it illegal to remove or damage the tree on federal lands, although tribes can still collect seeds on federal lands for ceremonial and traditional uses. A national restoration plan, created by nonprofits working with the federal government and tribal nations, is slated to publish in 2023; the listing also triggers the creation of a recovery plan by Fish and Wildlife, with both plans building off the hard work already underway on the ground.   

Growing disease-resistant trees

White pine blister rust, an invasive fungal disease, is the primary threat to the pine. Dead red branches and orange-rimmed canker sores are signs of the disease, which can eventually kill the tree.

Identifying trees that appear to resist it, then growing their offspring in nurseries and replanting them in the wild, is one way to create tougher forests. A greenhouse full of yellow tubes in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, is home to 100,000 1-year-old whitebark pine seedlings. The Forest Service nursery there supplies the most rust-resistant seedlings of all six Forest Service nurseries in the country. 

Collecting seeds and genetic material

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are working hard to restore whitebark pines on tribal lands. Starting in 2016, the nations’ forestry and historic preservation departments identified areas with resistant trees, planted seedlings and caged ripening cones to safeguard them from hungry critters. Cones are then harvested for nurseries like the one in Idaho. The tribes also collect genetic material like pollen, to help researchers investigate drought and blister rust resilience in the trees. Genetic testing occurs through the Whitebark Pine Genome Initiative and research at the Forest Service Dorena Genetic Resource Center.  

Building seed orchards 

Why traipse around in the woods, searching for whitebark pine cones and climbing trees to harvest them, when you could just head to a designated orchard? Seed orchards, like the one created in Montana’s Custer Gallatin National Forest in 2013, are meant to speed up and simplify the seed sourcing process. While it takes the orchards two or more decades to be operational — trees must be old enough to produce a good cone crop — having easily accessible seeds is a long-term investment. 

Protecting trees from mountain pine beetle

Mountain pine beetles kill whitebark pines from within. The bugs swarm the tree, chew a network of paths inside its bark and lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed and develop in tissue under the bark — blocking water and nutrients, and eventually killing the tree. In warmer years, more beetles survive the winter, and also reproduce faster, and drought-stressed trees are especially susceptible to them. 

Targeted approaches can help protect individual trees and their cones from such onslaughts. Beetle pheromones can trick the bugs at their own game, according to the Forest Service: An early 2000s study in north Idaho found that an artificially made mountain pine beetle attractant pheromone, verbenone, protected individual whitebark pines from mass beetle attacks. Beetles produce verbenone when they’ve attacked a tree and there are too many beetles, signaling to their colleagues: This tree is occupied. Go somewhere else. Humans want to mimic this signal to keep beetles away altogether.

Designating priority restoration areas

The national whitebark pine restoration plan, which develops priority areas for restoration, is led by the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and American Forests in consultation with the Forest Service, along with other federal land management agencies and tribal nations. National parks, Forest Service regions and Bureau of Land Management field offices all nominated 20% to 30% of their whitebark pine distribution as potential core areas for the work.

This kind of targeted approach helps deal with the logistical and fiscal challenges of the trees' large range. The whitebark pine is the most widely distributed forest tree protected under the Endangered Species Act. Eventually, seeds from trees thriving in core areas will disperse into neighboring areas. The final plan, which will be released this year, will include nominated core areas, management strategies and estimated implementation costs for proposed restoration activities. 

In 2019, Nico Matallana, National Park Service biological science technician, plants a whitebark pine seedling among trees killed by the 2017 Sprague Creek Fire on Mount Brown in Glacier National Park, Montana.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Keeping surrounding forests healthy

Forestry techniques like prescribed fire and thinning can help whitebark pines, too. Clearing out brush and limiting excess fuel reduces the likelihood of high-severity fires. Fires can benefit the pines, but they can also harm them. 

Whitebark pines can survive low-intensity fires that occur in small portions of their forests thanks to their thicker bark and deeper roots, while mixed severity fires can open up habitat for the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that scatters the trees’ seeds. Whitebark pine forests in northwestern Montana, northern Idaho and the Cascades have historically experienced periodic large fires in which trees are killed but readily regenerate afterward. But today’s more severe, more frequent wildfires can also kill mature pines, including the rust-resistant ones. Losing these trees to wildfire would be a big blow to restoration efforts. Recent work from the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory suggests effective whitebark pine restoration needs to “enhance the benefits and reduce the losses from wildfires.” 

Monitoring Clark’s nutcracker 

Whitebark pines need the Clark’s nutcracker to disperse their seeds, sometimes as far as 20 miles from their home trees, and the Clark’s nutcrackers needs whitebark pines for calories. The two species’ fates are intertwined. So researchers across the West are monitoring this small bird, worried about its decline as the trees die. Tracking efforts are underway in areas like North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks.

“We’re relying on the bird,” said Diana Tomback, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver who studies whitebark pine. “It will take multiple human lifetimes for whitebark pines’ range to be re-established, and Clark’s nutcrackers’ seed dispersal will be the key to this.” 

Kylie Mohr is an editorial fellow for High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy

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