Effort begins to restore whitebark pine in Montana, neighboring states

Posted: May 9, 2012

Source: Missoulian

BILLINGS – The U.S. Forest Service is attempting to grow whitebark pine that are resistant to blister rust as part of an effort to prevent the high-elevation tree from dying out in Montana, Idaho andWyoming.

Workers have created a 15-acre nursery in the mountains south of Bozeman where seedlings resistant to blister rust are being grown, and limbs from older trees will be grafted onto the young trees to speed up seed production.

“Hopefully, they will be producing cones in four years,” Jay Frederick, a wildlife biologist in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, told the Billings Gazette

He said it normally takes 30 to 50 years for the slow-growing whitebark pine to produce cones.

Grizzly bears depend on whitebark pine that produce high-protein nuts in the fall. The nuts allow bears to fatten up for hibernation. Besides bears, the tree is important to some 20 wildlife species and has been identified as a keystone species in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The fenced nursery is costing about $20,000 a year for the next five years, and officials are hoping the trees will by then be producing seeds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged the tree is threatened but didn’t list it as an endangered species because of other species with higher priorities.

Reasons for the decline, officials said, vary from a lack of forest fires that allow other trees to take over typical whitebark habitat, warmer weather that results in less snowfall and an environment where pine beetles can be more successful. The whitebark pine population has declined by 90 percent in some portions of the Northern Rockies, and experts say it faces the possibility of extinction in 120 to 180 years.

To turn things around, the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee Whitebark Pine Subcommittee is regenerating trees from resistant seedlings as well as spraying existing trees with chemicals to ward off blister rust and pine beetle attacks.

“We’re trying to maintain what we have and re-establish them where they don’t exist,” Frederick said. “But you won’t see acres and acres of whitebark pine.”

Plans call for 306 acres to be planted with seedlings in the Caribou-Targhee, Shoshone and other forests this year, followed by another 345 acres next year and 473 acres in 2014.

“We try to find micro-sites out of the wind and frost pockets to protect them from the weather,” Frederick said.

Researcher Mary Mahalovich, based in Moscow, Idaho, has been working for the Forest Service since 1998 examining the genetics of whitebark pine. She identified a strain resistant to blister rust that mostly came from northern Idaho and northwestern Montana where the trees first came in contact with the nonnative fungi in about 1925. Workers have planted seeds from about 1,000 of those trees in a Forest Service nursery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

“Even though whitebark pine has faced a quadruple whammy, we still have sufficient material for restoration,” she said. “We just have to accelerate our production.”

But Mahalovich said it’s expensive, about $1,000 to $2,000 an acre to plant the trees. About 250 trees are planted per acre.