Get to know the whitebark pine

This threatened tree feeds and shelters the high country.

Whitebark pines are unmistakable, with stout, twisted trunks that are shaped but not dominated by the wind and topped with bundles of needles on upswept branches. But by 2016, over half of the trees 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. 

Tribal nations, conservation groups and federal agencies have worked for years to protect and restore the tree, which has been on the waitlist for federal protections for more than a decade. In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally listed the tree as threatened.


Whitebark pine trees are found as high as 12,100 feet and can live up to 1,270 years. They commonly grow on ridgelines and prefer full sunlight. 

The tree’s branches create shade, which helps retain snowpack, and its roots hold the soil in place, preventing erosion. 

Its range spans 80.5 million acres in seven Western states and Canada.

Stands of whitebark offer habitat for birds of prey, including great horned owls and red-tailed hawks, ungulates like bighorn sheep and elk, as well as pine martens, snowshoe hares, pika, mountain lions and wolverines. 

The tree relies almost exclusively on the Clark’s nutcracker, a gray-and-black bird with a dagger-like bill, to scatter its seeds. 

Whitebark pinecone seeds contain more calories per gram than chocolate.

The seeds can be cooked in hot ashes, roasted, mixed with serviceberries or ground into a mush or flour. Members of the Blackfoot Confederacy have used the tree’s early spring needles and sap for cough syrup and eaten the inner bark when other food sources were scarce.  

Whitebark pines face numerous threats, from invasive fungi to climate change to beetles. When combined, these ecological threats can exacerbate each other: For example, drought-stricken trees have a harder time fighting off beetle invasions.

Dead red branches and orange-rimmed canker sores are signs of the conifers’ number-one threat: white pine blister rust, an invasive fungal disease that can kill the tree. One way to create tougher forests: Identify trees that seem resistant, collect and cultivate their offspring in nurseries and then replant them in the wild. 

Scientists and land managers use biological trickery to protect the whitebark pine from beetle invasions. After beetles attack a tree, they produce a pheromone called verbenone that warns their colleagues, “This tree is occupied. Go somewhere else.” Humans can mimic this signal to keep the bugs away altogether.

Saving the whitebark pine doesn’t come cheap. Artificially inoculating seedlings in greenhouses and nurseries to test for blister rust resilience can cost $1,200 per tree. 

Illustrations by Emily Poole/High Country News

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