Federal and state agencies teamed up last month to plant more than 13,000 whitebark pine seedlings across jurisdictional boundaries in an effort to restore the trees in an area burned by the 2015 Squeezer Fire.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources (DNRC), Swan River State Forest and U.S. Forest Service conducted the June 18 planting on 55 acres in the Swan Valley, including 15 acres of DNRC land and 40 Forest Service acres.
The cooperative effort comes amid a prolonged campaign to restore whitebark pines in Montana, with biologists calling the trees, which are dense with cones bearing nutrient-rich nuts, a keystone species with critical ecological importance because numerous birds and animals, including grizzly bears, feast and often depend on the nuts.
The trees also help with runoff regulation and serve “nurse” roles in allowing other vegetation to “establish in the harsh conditions at high elevations,” according to the Forest Service.
Whitebark pines have been wiped out across the Western U.S, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated them a candidate for federal protections in 2011, the first time a tree species warranted a threatened or endangered listing. The concern is especially pronounced in Northwest Montana, where the species is in danger of becoming functionally extinct on the Flathead National Forest.
While fire suppression, mountain pine beetles and climate change are factors, the biggest culprit is blister rust, an invasive fungus that followed Western settlement and decimated the majority of whitebark stands in Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
“Whitebark pine mortality in our area is the highest in the United States, primarily due to extensive white pine blister rust infections,” Flathead National Forest Silviculturist Melissa Jenkins said in announcing the June 18 planting of 13,250 whitebark seedlings in the Squeezer Fire burn area.
“Planting is the most effective way to restore whitebark in our area because natural regeneration is unlikely due to the limited number of remaining healthy cone-bearing trees, and natural selection has eliminated the highly rust-susceptible trees,” she continued. “So the seedlings we plant come from ‘mother’ trees with much higher levels of blister rust resistance.”
In Glacier National Park, re-vegetation crews have worked for years to slow whitebarks’ decline and restore the trees, while two years ago Whitefish Mountain Resort became the first “Whitebark Pine Friendly Ski Area” through the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.
Last month’s planting in the Swan Valley “ensures that trees with increased levels of rust resistance will become re-established on sites that historically supported whitebark pine,” DNRC Swan Unit Manager Nick Aschenwald said.
The Flathead National Forest, in cooperation DNRC, follows principles outlined in the “Range-Wide Restoration Strategy for Whitebark Pine” in its efforts to restore the species. The national forest and DNRC are also members of the Crown of the Continent Hi5 Working Group, “a multi-agency, transboundary group working together to restore whitebark pine in the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem.”
“We are excited to be partnering with the DNRC to restore this important species and its ecological benefits across administrative boundaries in an area where it is ecologically suited,” Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said.
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