Whitebark pine is a keystone species, playing a critical role in maintaining the structure of the ecological community around it. It provides food and shelter for over 100 species of birds and animals and also protects watersheds by holding snow and rocky soils in place where trees typically cannot grow. Some whitebark pines have lived over 1,000 years.
Regeneration of whitebark pine depends on the Clark’s nutcracker, a vocal grey bird from the crow or corvid family that harvests and caches seeds. Their significant role comes into play when the Clark’s nutcracker leaves behind cached seeds that germinate, eventually becoming mature trees. Whitebark pine cone scales don’t open independently. Therefore, without the Clark’s nutcracker there would be no mechanism for seed dispersal and no more whitebark pine.
The whitebark pine is an important component of western high-elevation forests that has been declining in the United States and Canada since the early twentieth century. This decline is due to the combined effects of mountain pine beetle outbreaks, fire exclusion policies and the spread of the exotic fungus, white pine blister rust. It is now a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Within the last decade, with major surges of pine beetle and increasing damage and mortality from blister rust, whitebark pine losses have altered high-elevation community composition and ecosystem processes in many regions.
Given the significance of the whitebark pine, we can all help to protect, restore and preserve this important species in peril.
BLM foresters, ecologists and botanists in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are working together on conservation and restoration activities to sustain the iconic whitebark pine forests of the subalpine zone. Wildlife biologists keep records of occurrence dates and damages to the species. With help from the public, these specialists are able to more uniformly track the species.
Please help BLM by reporting any of the following:
- Pockets of “faders” or areas where an orange/rust color appears on the needles because of mountain pine beetles
- Occurrences of limber pine
- Observations of white pine blister rust
- Sightings of mountain pine beetles (one of the leading causes of whitebark pine mortality)
If you observe a potential threat to the whitebark pine, please report it to a Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service forester or ecologist. If possible, it's also helpful to provide a township and range section, GPS coordinates or a geographic name. An example might be head of Elk Horn Creek on the saddle or ridge.