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June 09, 2011 7:43 am

Whitebark pine protection plan

Written by Gib Mathers

Strategy developed to preserve threatened species

A multi-agency team is developing a strategy to preserve the insect- and disease-threatened whitebark pine tree that is considered a foundation species in mountains across the West.

Growing just below timberline, whitebark pine shades snow, thus slowing snowmelt. It allows other plants to gain a foothold in its rugged terrain, said Kelly McCloskey, Whitebark Pine Committee chair and ecologist at Teton National Park.

Whitebark allows other conifers, such as spruce and fir, to colonize, said Ellen Jungck, Shoshone National Forest silviculturist in Dubios and representative on the Whitebark Pine Committee.

“The whitebark pine’s large, protein-rich seeds are an important food source for birds, squirrels, black and grizzly bears and other mammals,” said the Whitebark Pine Strategy, written by the Whitebark Pine Subcommittee of the Yellowstone Coordinating Committee.

Whitebark pine is currently threatened by both insects and disease, said the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee news release. It is found on 10 percent, or 2.5 million, acres of the 24 million-acre Greater Yellowstone area. Of Shoshone National Forest’s nearly 2.5 million acres, 624,825 acres contain whitebark pine, with 217,270 of those acres dominated by whitebark, said the strategy.

Data from studies over the last few years indicate more than 50 percent of whitebark stands in the Greater Yellowstone area have suffered high to complete mortality in tree canopies, and 95 percent suffer pine beetle activity, said the strategy.

It was thought that whitebark habitat was too cold for beetles, but the insect’s expansion into higher climes in the last decade suggests a warming climate. Although less is known of blister rust, warmer weather and higher humidity aid the spread of rust, the strategy said.

White blister rust is nonnative, but mountain pine beetles are natives.

Warmer temperatures and adequate moisture could lead to the prevalence of other tree species where whitebarks once were the dominant trees, the strategy said.

The strategy’s emphasis is on genetic conservation, McCloskey said.

One example would be growing blister rust-resistant trees. More than 20 percent of whitebark pines show genetic resistance to blister rust, McCloskey said.

So, cones from whitebarks showing blister rust resistance are collected and the seedlings can be planted in the future. Some places — mostly where there were fires — have been planted, McCloskey said.

Proposed locations for protection and restoration will be prioritized.

Examples of some of the strategies in the Shoshone Forest include 300 acres targeted for beetle treatment through 2013, coordinating with fire managers to discourage fire where there are cone-bearing whitebarks through 2014 and collecting cones from rust-resistant trees at 20 trees per year through 2014. Planting seedlings also is planned through 2013.

Strategy objectives include protecting remaining whitebark, promoting genetic diversity, reducing timber fuels down-slope from whitebark, planting whitebark while anticipating climate change and maintaining and restoring whitebark in grizzly bear recovery areas.

Reducing fuels below whitebark stands prevents fires from reaching them, Jungck said.

Whitebark begin producing seed cones between 60 and 80 years old and continue growing good cones until around 120 years old, Jungck said.

The Clark’s nutcracker will disperse the seeds, but the nutcracker will sometimes snatch the seeds from the cones before they ripen. In some locations, cages are placed around cones to allow seeds a chance to cure, so those seeds can produce seedlings, Jungck said.

Nutcrackers will fly several kilometers to cache seeds, so areas are cleared by humans to encourage the birds to stash the seeds and so encourage whitebark seedlings, Jungck said.

Clark’s nutcrackers resemble gray jays, but they are lighter gray, have longer beaks and have white patches on their black wings and tails, according to Peterson Field Guides to Western Birds.

Both nutcrackers and gray jays are sometimes referred to as camp robbers.

“Caw, caw,” said Jungck in a raspy voice, with a laugh, trying to imitate a Clark’s nutcracker. “They’re noisy.”

The strategy will be updated as whitebark preservation knowledge increases, McCloskey said.

The strategy is the culmination of five years of work by professional ecologists, foresters and wildlife biologists in the Greater Yellowstone Area, said the release.

The strategy demonstrates multi-agency commitment to work together, McCloskey said.

Whitebark Pine Committee partners include forest and Park Service personnel in the Greater Yellowstone area, private forestry, university researchers, U.S. Geological Survey, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team and Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation members.

The latest beetle infestation started in 1999.

Whitebark pines will endure, but the strategy is needed nonetheless to protect them, McCloskey said.

Still, the landscape is changing.

“It’s pretty clear whitebark pine are not going to look the same in our lifetime as they did 20 years ago,” McCloskey said.

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