The National Parks Conservation Association had an interesting article in its winter magazine discussing whitebark pine recovery efforts, including the work being done in Glacier National Park . . .
Mountaintop living isn’t easy. At very high elevations, the wind can be fierce, the temperatures bitter, the snow heavy, and the soil thin and crumbly. Most trees simply can’t survive, but the whitebark pine is a notable exception: Somehow, these trees manage to live — and even thrive — in the highest, sketchiest locations. Some have lived at the edge of the treeline for more than 1,000 years.
In Grand Teton National Park, people come across the trees on classic hikes to places such as Lake Solitude and Surprise Lake; at Crater Lake National Park, their twisted trunks and windswept branches appear throughout Rim Village and in the midst of the lake’s blue depths on Wizard Island.
Wherever they are, people notice them. “The architecture of the tree is very dramatic,” said Nancy Bockino, an ecologist at Grand Teton. They look like charismatic bundles of broccoli, she said, particularly when they’re sculpted by wind and weather on exposed slopes.
Here’s an excellent article on the efforts to restore the whitebark pine population . . .
It’s a late September day, threatening to rain, and the mountainsides around Whitefish, Montana are popping with red huckleberry leaves, mountain ash, and maple. “We’re almost to the whitebark zone,” Melissa Jenkins announces as the ski lift ascends over Whitefish Mountain Resort and the air temperature drops. As we near the summit, she points out the towering, gray skeletons of dead trees poking out of the shrubby understory.
Jenkins explains that whitebark pines (Pinus albicaulis) once dominated the upper mountain here. The trees make a living in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, and in the Rocky Mountains as far south as Wyoming. But in the 1920s, a rust fungus introduced from Asia started appearing in the northern Rockies. Blister rust (Cronartium ribicola) hit whitebarks hardest in northern Montana and Idaho, southern Alberta, and British Columbia. By the time Jenkins, who oversees forest management activities on the Flathead National Forest, arrived in 2008, blister rust had killed 80 percent of the region’s whitebark pines.
The species’ outlook has grown increasingly dire over the past 20 years. Blister rust has been a big part of that problem. So have unprecedented, climate-driven outbreaks of native bark beetles. Fire suppression has also allowed shade-tolerant tree species to crowd out whitebarks. In 2011, the whitebark pine became the first widely distributed tree considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the tree warranted listing as a threatened or endangered species, limited resources have kept it from being prioritized for protection. Canada declared it endangered under the Species at Risk Act in 2012.
The Flathead Beacon has an interesting story about the attempt to restore the whitebark pine forests . . .
To the uninitiated, the stark beauty of a whitebark pine is revealed only after the tree has died and shed its needles, leaving behind a vertical boneyard of wind-twisted limbs that writhes in the high-alpine sky like a ghostly apparition.
At the height of vitality, however, the whitebark pine is only distinct from other verdant stands of conifers to the trained eye despite the network of wildlife they sustain.
Foresters and researchers who understand the critical ecological importance of the keystone species are striving to reanimate these ghost forests, and may be closing in on a strategy to ensure their future survival, as well as that of the many wildlife species who depend on its nutrient-dense cones.
Here’s a very interesting article about the diminishing whitebark pine population . . .
Even the living whitebark pine trees look tragic.
Each living tree points gnarled limbs at 10 dead fellows on this mountain pass in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. They bend and twist the way the wind shrieks along the Continental Divide, implying a mix of pain and defiance. They adapted to grow on the most hostile ground in Montana. But they’re failing.
Diana Six calls them “ghost forests.” At the edge of the tree line, beyond where the Ponderosa pine and spruce and alpine fir can survive, the whitebark pine used to rule. The University of Montana forest entomologist seeks them out on the slopes of Ch-paa-qn Mountain west of Missoula, in the Beaverhead Mountains above the Big Hole Valley, and the high ridges of the Bob Marshall. Her search gets harder every year.
I’ve heard that the area around Hornet Lookout is one source of the seeds used in this project . . .
The U.S. Forest Service is growing disease-resistant whitebark pine trees to improve the chances of survival of the key high-elevation species, which blister rust is wiping out in the Northern Rockies.
“It’s just using the natural selection process and giving it a little bit of a boost,” said Tanya Murphy, a silviculturist with Great Falls-based Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Some whitebark pine trees have genetic traits that make them more resistant to disease.