Last chance for the whitebark pine

A remarkable tree, spread by birds andeaten by bears, finally gets someattention

  • SEED SPREADER: Clark's nutcracker

    photo courtesy Bob Keane
 

MISSOULA, Mont. - High atop Beaver Ridge on the Montana-Idaho border, a neglected tree species is making its last stand.

Moss-adorned 60-foot-tall snags that were once thriving whitebark pine trees stand like ghosts in this forest now dominated by subalpine fir.

Years ago, the pine with the cones that point skyward provided tons of big nutritious seeds that at least 110 different animal species, ranging from small birds and mice to grizzly bears, loved to eat. Now, the few solitary, centuries-old trees that still cling to life here and in the neighboring Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness are facing local extinction.

In Glacier National Park, the species is down to 5 percent of its historic range. In areas around Missoula, 60 percent to 80 percent of the trees have died. In the Bob Marshall Wilderness, trees are also dying at a fast clip.

A tree is overlooked

For decades, the stark gray snags crowding the ridgelines like moss-covered gravestones failed to ring an alarm.

Ecologists first thought the massive die-offs were part of the tree's natural cycle. Timber scientists weren't very interested in the slow-maturing, low-value tree that grows at high elevations.

The die-offs began in the 1930s, when mountain pine beetles swarmed through the forests, a natural cyclical phenomena. The tiny beetles dig egg chambers in the cambium of a tree. Under regular circumstances, whitebark pine would resist the beetles by clogging the egg chambers and entry holes with pitch. But the tree came under stress at the same time from an exotic disease from France called white pine blister rust.

Fire ecologist Steve Arno first noted the massive decline in the 1960s. Arno eventually recruited Bob Keane, an ecologist with the Forest Service's Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Mont., to unravel the tree's ecological secrets.

For four summers, Keane camped in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, observing an astounding relationship between the whitebark pine and its wildlife neighbors.

Biologists had already recognized the tree as an important wildlife food source - particularly for bears. Red squirrels cache the seeds, then bears pilfer those caches. Bears crave the oily seeds so much that, if offered the option, they will choose them over salmon.

In Yellowstone National Park, whitebark pine seeds account for up to 48 percent of a grizzly bear's annual diet during a productive cone crop year. When the late summer seed crop is abundant, bears are rarely seen at low elevations. When the crop fails, there is always a dramatic increase in human-bear encounters in the valleys.

Keane monitored an even more curious animal-tree relationship that was first brought to light by biologist Diana Tomback of the University of Colorado at Denver.

Whitebark pine cones develop facing skyward and hold onto their seeds so that they never fall to the ground. There has never been a documented case of a seed germinating beneath a parent tree. Even if they could get free, the seeds do not have wings that would allow them to float to open areas. Instead, a feathered friend - the Clark's nutcracker - disperses the seeds.

Come late summer, Clark's nutcracker will break open a cone, extract a mouthful of seeds and fly to an open area to bury them. Each bird picks up to 110,000 seeds every summer, hiding them in about 8,000 different spots.

"The bird is a caching machine," Keane says.

Either the bird can't remember all the locations of the caches, or it isn't hungry enough to eat all the seeds, because each bird ends up ingesting only about 85,000 seeds a year, giving the rest a chance to germinate.

But the nutcracker doesn't hide its caches in any old clearing, Keane discovered. The seeds develop into trees only in disturbed soil, as in a recently burned area free from competition from other plants - which is the main reason why whitebark pine has not been able to rebound after its crises with disease and insects.

"Modern fire-suppression tactics over the last 80 years have stopped fires from reaching the high mountain tops where the tree lives," Keane says.

Fire would not only prepare suitable caching areas, it would also keep the shade-tolerant subalpine fir in check.

"When subalpine fir even see a fire, they just throw up their hands and lie down," Keane says. From his research in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Keane estimates that subalpine fir now dominates 22 percent of the traditional whitebark pine habitat. Historically, the fir only grew in about 8 percent.

"Without fire, fir will overtake an area in three to four decades," he says.

A complex prescription

On Beaver Ridge, saw crews were busy last summer thinning firs from some areas to stimulate growth and cone production in whitebark pine, as well as clear-cutting 1- to 2-acre plots to create nutcracker caching sites. After setting prescribed burns, workers will replant some areas, and leave others to the nutcracker.

But thinning and reseeding will prove fruitless in the future unless wildfire is allowed to return to the ecosystem, says Keane:

"The only way to perpetuate the species is to open up areas for caching. That means fire, because innovative methods like thinning and clear-cutting won't always work. First of all about 49 percent of the whitebark range is located in wilderness areas where you can't even use a chainsaw."

But there are major problems with prescribed, or controlled, burning. The time frame for prescribed burns at high altitudes is short because of heavy snows. Many sites can't even be reached by vehicle until mid-June. On Beaver Ridge, snow often tops the 22-foot-high weather tower long after spring arrives in the valleys.

"Usually, when the whitebark pine area comes into prescription, the lower forests are at a tinderbox dry condition," Keane says. "The best treatment is to let wildfires in wilderness go at high elevations and drift upslope and burn themselves out at the tree line. And only control them if they come near people or property."

Keane will never live to see whether his efforts to save the whitebark pine are successful. It often takes 10 years before a burn site becomes conducive to whitebark seedling survival. Grasses and forbs must first create enough ground cover to hold soil moisture. Then it takes another 20 to 40 years before seedlings become functional trees. And then another 20 years before they start producing cones.

But once they get established, trees that escape the rust, beetles and crown fires can "live for a very long time," Keane says, often for centuries.

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.

This story was made possible by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.

You can contact ...

  • Bob Keane at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, 406/329-4846.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Mark Matthews

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!