WHITEFISH – Joyce Kilmer believed he’d never see a poem as lovely as a tree, and there are people who believe the whitebark pine is – or should be – at the top of Kilmer’s list.
After all, how beautiful is it that the high-elevation whitebark pine relies on a specific species of bird to plant its seeds?
The Clark’s nutcracker takes seeds from the whitebark pine cones, 50 to 150 at a time, stores them in a pouch under its tongue, and flies off to hide them in caches, often in the ground.
A single Clark’s nutcracker can cache almost 100,000 seeds in a single season, far more than it will usually need to feed on later. The bird does so as something of an insurance policy, in case thieving squirrels or other animals steal too many, or other food sources are in short supply that year.
What doesn’t get eaten, or stolen, often grows.
But whitebark pines face deadly threats on so many fronts that the species is, according to University of Colorado Denver researcher Diana Tomback, a candidate for the U.S. endangered species list. It's already on Canada’s version.
“And it’s declining fastest in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem,” Tomback says.
Northwest Montana has lost 90 percent of its whitebark pines, which may be part of the reason scientists working to help the tree survive will gather in Whitefish Friday for the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation’s annual science meeting. Friday night Tomback, director of the foundation since its inception in 2001, and Flathead National Forest reforestation specialist Karl Anderson will explain to the public why the whitebark pine is so important.
And why it is in grave danger.
Clark’s nutcrackers aren’t the only wildlife that use whitebark pine as a food source – they’re just the species that happens to disperse the seeds while doing so.
More than 110 species of birds and animals, including grizzly bears, like to feed on the seeds, which foundation secretary Melissa Jenkins calls “big, fatty, and real nutritious.”
In addition to being an important food source, whitebark pines are important to watershed protection. Their presence “allows other tree species to establish under the harsh conditions near the tree line, and helps retain snowpack and regulate runoff,” according to Jenkins, who is also a silviculturist with the Flathead National Forest.
The interaction between Clark’s nutcrackers and whitebark pine is nothing short of amazing, Jenkins feels. Four other similar species of trees found in Europe and Asia each have their own species of birds that to for them what the Clark’s nutcracker does for the whitebark pine.
Just as amazing is the birds’ ability to remember all the places they’ve cached the tens of thousands of seeds.
“I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday,” Jenkins says, “but they can remember all the places they put those seeds.”
Sadly, Tomback says, the whitebark pine’s decline is occurring at a rapid pace. “The implications are vast,” and “the epicenter is your neck of the woods” in northwestern Montana.
Here in the Crown of the Continent, the climate is conducive to the spread of white pine blister rust, a fungal disease man introduced to North America that is devastating whitebark pines.
The tree is also threatened by mountain pine beetles, increased competition from shade-loving trees made possible by decades of wildfire suppression, and climate change.
“Our nonprofit was begun to counteract the threats and raise awareness of the tree and its decline,” Tomback says.
To that effort, seed orchards for the whitebark pine have been started on the Lolo, Lewis and Clark, and Gallatin national forests in Montana. And on Saturday, Whitefish Mountain Resort becomes the first “Whitebark Pine Friendly Ski Area” ever designated by the foundation after agreeing to criteria that will help protect and restore the species at the resort.