Whitebark Pine Revegetation Project Moves Forward

By Beacon Staff

The 16-day closure of Glacier National Park, which shuttered Oct. 1 due to a partial government closure, didn’t just turn visitors away at the gates – it also hindered critical, time-sensitive restoration projects.

Approximately 250 Glacier Park employees were furloughed during the shutdown, their positions ranging from top administrative brass to trail crew workers and dishwashers.

One small crew of seasonal staffers whose final weeks in the park are spent removing invasive lake trout from the park’s northwest corner were sent home, losing their narrow window of time to net the fish while they congregate to spawn, potentially reversing years of work.

Another crew’s last days in October are characterized by a frenetic push to plant some 1,500 tiny native seedlings that play an important role in Glacier Park’s ecosystem – the whitebark pine. They were sent home, too, the scores of eight-inch high seedlings bundled into the park’s Native Plant Nursery to endure the winter.

But with news of a resolution to reopen the government, the small, diligent staff returned after their season would normally have ended, braving Glacier Park’s snowy high-country in hopes of planting as many trees as possible.

“We were able to extend our staff for an extra week to address this and the native plant nursery shutdown,” said Dawn LaFleur, a biologist with Glacier Park’s Native Plant Restoration Program.

Once an abundant mainstay species in Glacier, whitebark pine populations have been declining for decades throughout the northern Rocky Mountains. For more than 15 years park revegetation crews have been working to slow the decline and restore the species by placing “cages,” or protective screens over their cones in an effort to prevent squirrels and birds from eating them.

The cages are kept on the trees until fall, when the cones mature, and are harvested and sent to the U.S. Forest Service Nursery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where the seeds raised into seedlings.

Between a year-and-a-half to three years later, the trees are sent back to the park where the seedlings are planted.

This year’s batch of seedlings consisted of about 1,100 whitebark pines and 300 limber pines – species that have both been devastated in Glacier by a fungal infection called blister rust.

Grizzly bears depend on whitebark pines because they produce high-protein nuts in the fall, allowing bears to fatten up for hibernation. Besides bears, the tree is an important food source to some 20 wildlife species and has been identified as a keystone species in the Northern Rockies ecosystem.

“It was identified by a keystone species because it is an important food source to the grizzly bear and the Clark’s nutcracker,” LaFleur said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged the tree as threatened but stopped short of listing it as an endangered species, saying other species have higher priorities. The sharp decline in whitebark pines is estimated to be as high as 90 percent in some portions of the northern Rocky Mountains and has been affected rangewide.

By the mid-1990s, studies done by U.S. Geological Survey scientist Kate Kendall found that the plots surveyed in Glacier had a 44-percent mortality rate. Because the rust was a non-native invader, Glacier began a program in 1997 to collect cones from the remaining live trees and plant their seedlings.

Between the government shutdown and wintry weather in Glacier’s high country, LaFleur said it’s unlikely all of the trees will be planted.

“It definitely slowed us down,” she said. “October is our big push to try and beat the weather for field planting, so the shutdown put a pinch on it,” she said.

Crews would have encountered harsh conditions in Glacier’s alpine stretches regardless of the shutdown as snow has blanketed the park, but they would have had additional time to plant trees at lower elevations.

Instead, the remaining whitebark seedlings, along with thousands of other native plants that must be transplanted, will be swaddled in foam to prevent the root systems from freezing and kept in the park’s nursery during the winter. In the late spring, field crews will plant the remaining seedlings.

“You never know what we can get done, especially as we get into October,” she said.

LaFleur said the project has shown signs of success through the years as the survival rate of the transplanted whitebarks has risen to between 50 and 60 percent.