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Protecting vanishing whitebark pine

Efforts are under way to protect whitebark pine decimated by native mountain pine beetles and non-native white pine blister rust in the Greater Yellowstone Area.

Whitebark pine is in peril throughout its range from blister rust, beetles and climate change, said Dan Reinhart, a resource management specialist with Yellowstone Center for Resources in Yellowstone National Park.

Reinhart spoke at a Lunchtime Expedition lecture at Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s Draper Museum of Natural History on Nov. 1.

Whitebark is called a keystone species — keystone meaning wildlife such as red squirrels, Clark’s nutcracker, grizzly bears and other fauna depend on the the tree’s pine nuts for food, Reinhart said.

Whitebark helps regulate snow melt and reduce soil erosion, said a June 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There are about 2.5 million acres of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Area’s 24 million acres, Reinhart said.

Whitebark pine stands are in peril, but Reinhart conveyed optimism in an American Forests video he showed.

Managers and conservation groups are working together to understand and protect whitebark pine across high-elevation landscapes. “I am hopeful about whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Area,” he said in the video.

Whitebark pine was considered for Endangered Species Act listing in 2011. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said listing was warranted, but precluded listing it because other species are in greater need of immediate listing. The service will review the tree’s condition annually, said a statement from the service in July 2011.

A whitebark pine may produce good cone crops every three to five years. Other years, production may be good, fair or poor, Reinhart said.

Almost all natural regeneration is accomplished by the nutcracker jay, which caches the seeds. The nutcrackers pick the seeds from the cones and initiate the germination process while transporting the seeds to their stockpiles. The old seed stashes will grow into clumps of five to seven trees, Reinhart said.

Seeds cached in open areas germinate the best, said Ellen Jungck, south zone silviculturist and timber management assistant for the U.S. Forest Service in Dubois.

In northwestern Montana’s Glacier Park, there is 50 to 90 percent whitebark mortality. In the Bob Marshall Wilderness, also mostly in northwestern Montana, mortality is 20 to 60 percent. In the Greater Yellowstone Area, mortality is 10 to 30 percent, Reinhart said.

Blister rust fares better in the wetter climes such as northwestern Montana, Reinhart said.

Rust fungus spores start on ribes species such as ferns and currants and spread to white pine from there. Spores can travel 10 to 12 miles. Tell signs are cankers, oozing sap and aecia, or roughened bark, Reinhart said.

Blister rust arrived in the United States in the early 1900s. By 1945, blister rust was discovered in the Greater Yellowstone Area.

“We’ve had it here for quite a while,” Reinhart said.

Beetles infested many Rocky Mountain forests in the 1930s and other subsequent times, but then only in increments of a few years. The latest beetle infestation has been in the Greater Yellowstone Area since 2000.

It takes winters with extended periods of temperatures of 20 degrees below zero or colder to kill beetles, and milder winters seem more common now, Reinhart said.

To help offset whitebark pine mortality due to blister rust, the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee’s Whitebark Pine Subcommittee is planting rust-resistant whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Area, said Reinhart, who is a subcommittee member.

A 15-acre nursery is located in the Gallatin National Forest south of Bozeman, Mont. There, seedlings resistant to blister rust are being grown, and limbs from older trees are being grafted onto the young trees to hasten seed production, said an Associated Press article in April.

Normally, it takes 30 to 50 years for whitebark to produce cones, said Jay Frederick, a wildlife biologist in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in the AP story.

The plan was to plant seedlings in 306 acres in the Caribou-Targhee, Shoshone and other national forests this year. In 2013, 345 acres are planned for planting and 473 acres in 2014, said the AP story.

More than 50 percent of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Area grows in wilderness areas, Reinhart said.

Fire suppression is not necessarily beneficial in wilderness areas, because natural fires create mosaic or checkerboard patterns, making it harder for beetles or rust to hopscotch from tree to tree. And fires create different age classes within the mosaics. Beetles usually prefer older trees, Reinhart said.

Designated wilderness areas mandate little or no intervention by humans, but a high percentage of whitebark inhabit those places.

Planting whitebark in wilderness should be considered. After all, Reinhart said, invasive species such as weeds are attacked in wilderness areas, and climate change is human-caused.

“It’s just something we need to consider for the future,” Reinhart said.

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