Friends of the Ghost Forests

Whitefish Mountain Resort gains recertification as whitebark pine friendly ski area for its efforts to promote conservation of a threatened keystone species

By Tristan Scott
A whitebark pine cone at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Beacon File Photo

In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the whitebark pine as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, even as efforts to protect the keystone species have been underway for 25 years on the Flathead National Forest and at Whitefish Mountain Resort, which in 2016 earned the designation as the nation’s first “Whitebark Pine Friendly Ski Area.”

This week, the resort on Big Mountain announced it had been recertified by the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, which recognized the ski area’s continued efforts to promote the conservation of whitebark pine and support the critical role it plays in the biodiversity of mountain ecosystems.

“Working closely with the Flathead National Forest over the past 25 years, Whitefish Mountain Resort has proved to be a terrific partner in supporting and promoting the restoration efforts of whitebark pine across Northwest Montana,” said Karl Anderson, a forest culturist with the Flathead National Forest.

The key to unlocking a strategy for recovery lies in the success of a program to promote extra-hearty strains of whitebark pine that have developed a genetic resistance to blister rust, an invasive fungus that followed western settlement of the Rocky Mountains, wiping out most of the whitebark stands in Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex nearly a century ago.

To the uninitiated, the stark beauty of a whitebark pine is revealed only after the tree has died and shed its needles, leaving behind a vertical boneyard of wind-twisted limbs. Foresters and researchers who understand the critical ecological importance of the species are striving to reanimate these “ghost forests,” and may be closing in on a strategy to ensure their future survival, as well as that of the many wildlife species who depend on its nutrient-dense cones.

The alternative, they say, could be a major environmental loss with a trophic cascade of ecological consequences.

Whitebark pine once grew in approximately 13% of the 2.5-million-acre Flathead National Forest, but blister rust, mountain pine beetles and climate change have combined to take a toll on the species — today, more than 90% of whitebark pine habitat has been decimated, and without action the species will become functionally extinct.

Today, Whitefish Mountain Resort is one of 14 sites on the Flathead National Forest where researchers are trying to reverse the decline. Each summer, tree climbers are hired on contract by the U.S. Forest Service to collect seeds from whitebark pine stands believed to have developed a genetic resistance to blister rust. The seeds are caged in July and left to ripen until September, when the tree climbers return to collect them.

The seeds are then shipped to the regional Forest Service nursery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where they undergo a battery of genetic tests before they are propagated. At the nursery, their genetic armor is rigorously tested through an intensive regimen of exposure to blister rust fungus spores. The seedlings that survive are grafted to existing whitebark roots to speed up the cone-bearing process.

Through this years-long process, the whitebarks are slowly being placed back on the landscape.

“It can take 50 to 70 years before whitebarks start producing cones, so this is how we accelerate the process,” Anderson said. “It is a culmination of a lot of hard work that has been a very time consuming and costly, but we think it will be worth it.”

Anderson has been studying whitebark pine since the national forest began the program in 1994, but he said the project didn’t involve caging the cones until 2002, when foresters realized they needed to protect the seeds from the Clark’s nutcracker.

Chris Cawley, with Roan and Associates, places wire cages over whitebark pine cones at Whitefish Mountain Resort on July 19, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Whitebark pine is regarded as a “keystone” species because it supports many other plants and animals, including grizzly bears and Clark’s nutcrackers, a bird species that stores the seeds underground for spring feeding to chicks. A single Clark’s nutcracker can cache up to 98,000 seeds in a season, many of which it forgets to retrieve before the seeds germinate, thus propagating the tree. Whitebark pine seeds also provide “Big Mac” equivalents of nutrient-rich calories to grizzly bears, which sniff out stockpiles of the seeds stored by red squirrels.

As “nurse trees,” they are the first to grow in high-elevation environments following major disturbances, such as a fire. Once they grow, they provide shelter and a gentler microenvironment in which other species, such as firs and spruces, can grow. Whitebark pines also reduce soil erosion and help to retain snow long into the summer, which in turn helps prevent spring floods and summer droughts.

“Whether we’re skiing through glades in the winter or taking in scenic views in the summer, we depend on a healthy and biodiverse mountain ecosystem,” said Bill Cubbage, director of mountain operations at Whitefish Mountain Resort. “Preserving whitebark pine is one way we can be stewards of our environment, and we’re grateful for our partners at the Forest Service and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation who have been leaders in protecting these precious trees on Big Mountain and beyond.” 

The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation is a nonprofit based in Missoula that promotes the conservation and restoration of whitebark pine and other high-elevation, five-needle white pines through education and outreach, research and collaborations.  

“Whitefish Mountain Resort has demonstrated exemplary leadership in their proactive approach to both protecting and restoring whitebark pine and educating the public on the unique mountain ecosystem this tree upholds,” Mike Giesey, ski area partnership committee chair at the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, said in a prepared statement. “It further shows the importance of the outdoor industry as partners in conservation, and we hope other ski resorts will follow suit.” 

More information about whitebark pine, the foundation and its ski area certification program can be found at whitebarkfound.org. More information about Whitefish Mountain Resort can be found at skiwhitefish.com.