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Know the West

Decline of whitebark pine could mean hungry grizzlies

  Dear HCN,

We greatly appreciated the article by Mark Matthews, "Last chance for the whitebark pine" (HCN, 12/4/00: Last chance for the whitebark pine), which described the widespread decline of the once abundant high-elevation whitebark pine ecosystem in the Northwestern United States and Southwestern Canada. The losses result from the combination of introduced disease (white pine blister rust) and fire suppression. We would like to note further that replacement of whitebark pine by more shade-tolerant conifers has a variety of consequences, ranging from altered hydrological patterns to more severe fire regimes to local and regional losses in biodiversity. An interesting juxtaposition to the whitebark pine article was Sherry Devlin's "Grizzlies invited back to the Bitterroot." The reasons given in the Devlin article for selecting the Middle Fork drainage of the Salmon River for grizzly bear reintroduction included food resources. The historically important grizzly bear foods in this region include whitebark pine seeds and salmon.

Whitebark pine - which comprises a major subalpine zone forest type in the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness areas - is heavily infected with white pine blister rust.

Blister rust is migrating farther south and east, with local intensification over time - a pattern that we are now seeing in the Greater Yellowstone Area. Whitebark pine treetops bear the seed cones, and they are damaged first by the rust. In another decade, much of the whitebark pine in this region could be heavily infected, with little to no seed production.

The bottom line is that two important components of critical grizzly bear habitat (whitebark pine and the anadromous salmon whose runs have been depleted by dams and other human-induced changes) are in poor shape in the area planned for grizzly bear reintroduction, and we do not see anyone addressing this issue. Given the cost of reintroduction and the importance of keeping bears well-fed at the higher elevations and away from people, the first step in this process should be long-term restoration efforts in whitebark pine communities.

Diana F. Tomback, Denver, Colorado
Stephen F. Arno, Florence, Montana

Tombeck and Arno are both long-term members of the Whitebark Pine Research Team, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.