National group joins whitebark pine battle
More resources needed to save the iconic, high-altitude species, researcher says.
Diana Tomback, director of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and a biology professor at the University of Colorado Denver, points out damage to a whitebark pine tree caused blister rust Monday at the top of Rendezvous Mountain at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Biologists say the fungus, along with mountain pine beetles, threatens the whitebark pine with extinction. CORY HATCH / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 19, 2011
A national conservation group is embarking on a five-year plan to make sure the imperiled whitebark pine persists in the Rocky Mountains.
The species is being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
American Forests CEO Scott Steen announced the plan at a meeting in Jackson on Monday. If fundraising efforts are successful, the group will try to plant 70,000 to 77,000 acres of whitebark pine trees in Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho during the next five years. The effort could cost as much as $10 million.
Regardless of funding, the group will strive to educate the public and help researchers work together to lessen pine forest devastation wrought by mountain pine beetles and a fungus called blister rust.
The group also hopes to find ways to control the pine beetle population, cultivate disease-resistant trees, treat affected areas, change fire suppression practices and influence policy makers.
“There are 41.7 million acres of dead or dying trees in the West,” Steen said. “This is a very, very long-term project. We’re really thinking of this as a project that lasts 100 years.”
Whitebark pine trees are important to Rocky Mountain ecosystems because they encourage biodiversity, said Diana Tomback, a biology professor with the University of Colorado Denver and director of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation. For instance, whitebark pines grow at high elevations near treeline, securing soils and providing shelter so other trees can gain a foothold.
The result is whitebark pines reduce soil erosion and stabilize snow, preventing avalanches. In the spring, whitebarks shelter the snowpack, slowing down the runoff and keeping more water in streams and rivers later in the year.
They also provide food and shelter for a number of wildlife species.
Tomback was one of the first researchers to figure out the relationship between whitebark pine and the Clark’s nutcracker. While other animals, including grizzly bears, use whitebark pine seeds for food, the Clark’s nutcracker is thought to provide the most important way whitebark pine seeds get dispersed across the landscape, Tomback said.
The Clark’s nutcrackers harvest the seeds, storing up to 100 in a pouch beneath their tongues. They then stash them in caches for retrieval later in the year. Those seeds that don’t get retrieved grow into whitebark pine seedlings.
The problem, Tomback said, is that Clark’s nutcrackers don’t stick around if there aren’t enough whitebark pine trees.
“The nutcracker follows the energy reward,” she said. “We’re not worried about losing the nutcracker, but we might lose them in whitebark pine as a disperser.”
Tomback led American Forests board members on a tour of whitebark pines at the top of the tram at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Braving 20-degree temperatures and several inches of snow, Tomback showed board members a whitebark pine tree that had begun to succumb to blister rust. The disease, which was accidently introduced to the United States in about 1900, forms cankers on the stems and trunks of trees that cut off water and nutrient flow, she said.
“Throughout its range, whitebark is infected by white pine blister rust and is being killed by mountain pine beetles,” Tomback said. “Blister rust is found throughout the Rocky Mountain range.”
Blister rust spores are “really tough,” and winds can blow the spores up to 300 miles, she said.
Researchers said the combination of mountain pine beetles and blister rust is so deadly to whitebark pines and similar trees because blister rust kills the individual trees pine beetles leave behind.
Pine beetles typically don’t infest trees with a trunk smaller than 5 or 6 inches in diameter, but blister rust can kill trees of any age.
The roughly 70,000 acres of replanted whitebark pine should be thought of as “centers for broadcasting seeds,” said Tomback. “It’s what we need to do to keep this species going. We need to be very efficient, very organized about how we spend money on restoration.”
Funding is needed for sequencing the genes that help whitebark pine trees resist blister rust and mountain pine beetles, an effort that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Give us more time,” Tomback said.