Sitting atop the highest slopes in western North America, the whitebark pine has adapted to the continent’s harshest growing conditions. Temperatures in the sub-alpine zone where it thrives are often well below zero, snow is measured in feet and winds often exceed 100 miles an hour. These stout, twisted trees are survivors: The oldest have grown for nearly 13 centuries.
But change has come to this high-elevation redoubt, threatening not only the whitebark pine’s survival but that of a host of creatures — from birds to bears — that rely on this keystone species. Warmer temperatures, a fungal disease called white pine blister rust, and swarms of mountain pine beetles have killed hundreds of millions of whitebark pines across the West. Wildfires are taking an increasing toll, and other conifer species are moving upslope in the rapidly changing environment, outcompeting the whitebark for nutrients and moisture.
In some areas, including regions within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which has Glacier National Park at its center, more than 90 percent of whitebark pine trees have died. Across the tree’s range, there are more dead trees than live ones, and high-country skylines in many places are marked by their skeletal remains.
Whitebark Pine are getting serious attention from the US Fish and Wildlife Service lately . . .
Climate change, voracious beetles and disease are imperiling the long-term survival of a high-elevation pine tree that’s a key source of food for some grizzly bears and found across the West, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
A Fish and Wildlife Service proposal scheduled to be published Wednesday would protect the whitebark pine tree as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, according to documents posted by the Office of the Federal Register.
But the agency said it doesn’t plan to designate which forested areas are critical to the tree’s survival, stopping short of what some environmentalists argue is needed.
Short version: There’s no money right now to pay for Endangered Species Act protection for whitebark pine . . .
An appeals court has ruled that U.S. government officials don’t have to take immediate action to protect a pine tree that is a source of food for threatened grizzly bears.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its order Friday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to protect species through the federal Endangered Species Act is limited by “practical realities,” such as scarce funds and limited staff.
The whitebark pine is in decline amid threats of disease, the mountain pine beetle, wildfire and climate change.
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.
From the press release . . .
The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation (WPEF) is partnering with the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park to hold the Foundation’s 2016 science meeting in Whitefish on September 16th. The event is being held at the O’Shaughnessy Center, 1 Central Avenue, and includes both a full day of science presentations and an evening program for the public. There will also be an event on Saturday recognizing Whitefish Mountain Resort as the first certified “Whitebark Pine Friendly Ski Area”. The formal presentation ceremony recognizing the ski area’s efforts to protect and restore whitebark pine will occur at the resort’s Base Lodge at 10:30 a.m.
Whitebark pine is a keystone species, whose large seeds provide a critical food source for over 110 species of birds and animals at high elevations. Its presence allows other tree species to establish under the harsh conditions near the tree line, and helps retain snowpack and regulate runoff. Outdoor enthusiasts know whitebark pine as a familiar companion that enriches their high mountain experiences.
Whitebark faces several threats, primarily human caused, that have decreased the number of whitebark pine in Northwest Montana by over 90 percent. The science program being held on Friday, the 16th from 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. will feature presentations by many of the premier experts in whitebark pine research, policy and restoration efforts. The public is welcome to attend; go to http://whitebarkfound.org/ for more information.
An evening program for the public, covering whitebark pine ecology, threats and local restoration efforts, will be held after the science meeting from 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. The evening program will feature presentations by whitebark pine and Clark’s nutcracker researcher, Dr. Diana Tomback, and Flathead National Forest reforestation specialist, Karl Anderson. Evening events will also include a no-host bar and silent auction. The public is encouraged to attend and learn more about whitebark pine and why it is such an important species to the people living in northwest Montana.
For more information on any of the events, please contact Melissa Jenkins, WPEF Secretary, at (406) 260-6500.
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.
A federal judge turned down a suit to force protection of whitebark pine . . .
A federal judge has ruled against conservationists who sought to force the government to protect a high-elevation pine tree whose nuts are a food source for threatened grizzly bears.
The Wildwest Institute and Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued after the government designated in 2011 that protections for the whitebark pine tree were warranted, but precluded by other priorities.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ruled on April 25 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designation leaves species such as the pine tree in limbo. But he declined to overturn the government finding, saying it’s up to Congress to allocate enough money to pay for protections.