Hope in the High Country: Standing for the Whitebark pine

The Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is an amazing tree – what ecologists call a keystone and foundation species. Its roots stabilize rocky soils at the snowy, windswept 6,000- to 12,000-foot elevations where it grows, and its large, high-protein seeds feed several bird and mammal species – nuthatches, squirrels, black bears, grizzly bears and red foxes.

Cooked in hot ashes, roasted, mixed with serviceberries or ground into a mush, the seeds are also a traditional food source for Native American and First Nation people in the U.S. and Canada.

Whitebark pine branches with seedcones
Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) | Lance Oditt, WBP Ecosystem Fdn.

Individual whitebark pines have been known to live 400 to 1,000 years and can grow to over 90 feet in height, but today, their survival as a species is jeopardized by mountain pine beetle outbreaks, altered fire regimes, climate change and a fungal infection called white pine blister rust.

While the BLM manages a small percentage of the trees’ range on public lands in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, the agency’s efforts are crucial to learning how to counter these threats, buttress remaining stands and restore areas where stands have declined.

BLM and U.S. Forest Service ecologists in Idaho have been working with the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation for nearly twenty years to restore the tree’s habitat in eastern Idaho. In the mountains above Challis, Idaho, teams attached pouches containing the pheromone verbenone to healthy trees to trick mountain pine beetles into thinking that the trees had already been attacked so they would move on.

BLM Forestry crew measures an old whitebark pine tree
Measuring a whitebark in the BLM Salmon Field Office

Specialists in Challis and Salmon, Idaho – and Cottonwood to the west – identify “plus” whitebarks, which have not been infected with blister rust even though other trees around them are. Trained crews climb these mature trees in early summer and place containment mesh around some of their seed cones for collection at the end of the summer.

Harvested seeds are planted in nurseries and raised to seedlings whose genetic makeup is analyzed for resistance to blister rust. Resistant seedlings can be planted in areas that need extra support to recover from fire, beetle infestation or blister rust.

U.S. Forest Service nursery of whitebark pine seedlings
Whitebark seedlings resistant to disease are raised in U.S. Forest Service nurseries.

Seedlings grow very slowly into mature, cone-bearing trees – sometimes too slowly to keep up with combined losses to fire and disease. So, knowing where whitebark pines currently exist becomes important to their conservation.

In proposing the Whitebark for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the BLM manages 4 percent of the lands where the tree currently grows in the United States. The BLM has mapped whitebark pine habitat on about 54,000 acres of public land and continues to model probable locations of additional acres to target future inventory surveys and develop management plans that respond to the threats the tree faces. Surveys of public land forests in Idaho have revealed somewhat higher numbers of stands than initially thought.

Whitebark pines were unknown to European settlers of North America until the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-06. As the explorers crossed the Bitterroot Mountains in 1805, they observed the bird later named Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) feeding in trees that may have taken root there long before the men were born, caching excess seeds that, unretrieved, might have sprouted and grown to maturity decades later – perhaps even living into our century.

The Whitebark pine stands as an emblem of endurance and timelessness for visitors to the mountains of the North American West. Management actions the BLM is taking today are bolstering the age-old ecological partnership of the nutcracker and the trees in sustaining these iconic landscapes for the future.