WEST FORK – On a ridge burned black in 2013, a crew of fast-moving men was hard at work last week creating what some hope will become a new Bitterroot National Forest refuge for a species of endangered pine.
In a matter of a morning, the crew planted about 9,000 whitebark pine seedlings over 22 acres in among the forest blackened by the sprawling Mustang Complex fire.
The day marked the last of this year’s tree planting work on the Bitterroot Forest.
“This year, we planted about 242,000 trees over 1,000 acres,” said Bitterroot Forest forester Corrine Anderson. “That’s about normal for us.”
But what wasn’t normal was Thursday’s planting of whitebark pine.
In recent memory, the last time the forest focused planting efforts on that pine species was 12 years ago when it planted about 100 acres in the Willow Point area.
Anderson hopes next year some additional whitebark pine will be planted around the Glen Lake Trail.
“Whitebark seedlings are kind of hard to come by,” Anderson said. “This isn’t something that we get to do very often.”
It’s no secret the high-elevation species, that’s so important to wildlife and watersheds, is in trouble across the West.
Thousands of acres of whitebark pine forest have been lost over the past few decades due to a combination of reasons, including attacks from an invasive pathogen that causes blister rust, mountain pine beetle outbreaks and altered fire regimes that have allowed other pines, firs and spruces to outcompete the species.
In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named whitebark pine as a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. In 2012, Canada listed the pine as endangered under its Species at Risk Act.
At this point, Anderson said it’s not completely clear on how the tree will fare as the climate warms.
“Whitebark pine are extremely slow growing,” Anderson said. “They are found in the higher elevations. At this point, there are a lot of people worried about the potential impacts of climate change will have on whitebark pine.
“If the climate gets warmer, different tree species will get pushed upward in elevation,” she said. “Whitebark pine is already at the top. If they lose that area, their niche will be pretty much gone.”
On the Bitterroot Forest, Anderson has seen a lot of the older whitebark pine trees succumb to beetles and blister rust.
“I also see a lot of seedlings in the 2- to 6-foot range,” she said. “Those seedlings come for the trees that have since died. Those seedlings to offer a little ray of hope, but it will take them 100 years to grow into a substantial tree.”
Researchers are working to develop strains of rust-resistant whitebark pine through selective breeding using seeds collected from trees that have been able to ward off the pathogen. Some of that seed is collected on the Bitterroot Forest.
Some of the more important seed trees are being protected from mountain pine beetles though the use of a pheromone that keeps the insects at bay.
“We have some big ones in the Coyote Meadows area that are being protected,” she said.
At the conclusion of Thursday’s planting expedition, Anderson said it was discovered there were 750 whitebark seedlings left over. Those will be planted by the forest’s silvaculture crew in the Gird Point area.
“We plan to use augers to plant those last trees,” she said. “It will take us quite a bit longer to get them in the ground, but it should be interesting to compare how they do.”
Anderson plans to develop a monitoring plan that will take a look at how the seedlings planted with a hoe-dad survive versus those planted with an auger.
When it comes to deciding where to plant whitebark pine seedlings that come to the Bitterroot Forest, Anderson turns to nature to help guide that decision.
“Whitebark like to grow in dry cold sites,” she said. “I look at the habitat types. Beargrass and whortleberry are good indicators. Historically, whitebark has grown in the places I select.”
Tree planting on the Bitterroot Forest started May 5 this year and ended last week.
“It turned out to be a great year with the moisture we received in May,” she said. “Things were looking pretty scary in April. I considered moving up the planting this year because of the lack of moisture. As it turned out, with all the rain we’ve had in May, I’m very happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish.”