LOST TRAIL – High up on a Bitterroot mountain ridge in the very tip-top of a spindly pine, Gabe Thorne is doing his part to save a species.
With his body attached to a well-used rope wrapped firmly around the tree’s trunk, the Hamilton man uses sap-covered hands to carefully pull branches topped with wire cages within range.
Inside each cage there’s a treasure that someday could play a role in saving the whitebark pine from extinction. The caged cones he gathers are dropped into the bright orange bag that hangs from his belt.
It doesn’t take long for him to finish the job.
The whitebark pine isn’t known for its plentiful bounty of cones.
“Some of these trees will only have six or eight cones in them for us to collect,” Thorne said. “Generally, they are all found in the top third of the tree’s crown.”
To get there takes skill and a definite lack of a fear of heights.
Thorne came by his tree-climbing abilities early in life. His dad was a climber too and owner of a tree-trimming business in Bitterroot once.
“He spent some time collecting cones for a time,” Thorne said.
From spring to fall, Thorne spends a good deal of his days in the high country in this annual cone gathering chore as a contractor with the U.S. Forest Service.
He collects cones from all species of evergreen, but his favorite is the whitebark pine that is found in the highest reaches of forested lands.
“I love being in the alpine,” he said. “The air is cooler up here than down in the valley floor. It tastes better. The views are unbeatable.”
Beyond that, he knows just how important this work is for the future.
Across the west, the whitebark pine is in trouble.
Already weakened by a long onslaught of an introduced fungal disease called white blister rust, the majestic alpine species is under attack by new outbreaks from the mountain pine beetle.
In places in Montana and Rocky Mountain states, entire stands have been lost.
This time of year in places like the Bitterroot, a few skilled climbers head to the hills to gather cones from the surviving trees. The seeds from those cones are being grown in nurseries scattered around the west in hopes of developing a new strain resistant to the disease and insect.
On the Bitterroot Forest, culturist Corinne Anderson spends time each spring patrolling the high country in search of the perfect tree.
This grove of whitebark pine on the edge of Saddle Mountain is a favorite of hers.
“It’s a special place,” Anderson said as she picks her way through the scattering of trees and grouse whortleberry. “This little collection of whitebark pine is one of our last remaining healthy groves.“
She stops to pick up a hollowed-out whitebark cone. Holding it up to the light, Anderson said it’s easy to see its importance to all the creatures who call this place home.
The seeds inside those dark purple cones have long been an important food source for Clark’s nutcrackers, chickadees, squirrels and even bears.
“It’s kind of a sad place too,” she said. “This is what’s vanishing right before our eyes. Healthy collections of whitebark pine are becoming a much rarer occurrence across the west.“
Anderson stops to watch Thorne as he scampers up another pine.
“He’s awesome to watch,” she said. “Sometimes I think he must be part squirrel.“
Bitterroot Forest staff planning officer Jerry Krueger said the Bitterroot stands at a crossroads of sorts for the whitebark pine.
Scientists have found there are 13 genetically unique variations of whitebark pine populations in the northern Rocky Mountains. The Bitterroot Forest has three of those.
“We are one the genetic hotspots for the whitebark pine,” Krueger said. “We are at the ecological crossroads for the southern and northern zones and we have populations that are similar to those found in its eastern ranges.”
The whitebark pine is currently a nominated species for inclusion on the federal endangered species list.
“People are gravely concerned about its survival,” Krueger said. “There are many who want to preserve its genetic diversity for future generations.“
The orchards of whitebark pine being grown now from seeds gathered by folk like Thorne may be the tree’s best hope.
Even here, in this last best grove of whitebark pine on the Bitterroot Forest, there’s plenty of sign of trees under stress.
Anderson points out the tell-tale marks caused by blister rust carved into the bark of nearby trees.
“We’ll probably lose this stand to beetles someday too,” Anderson said. “We’ve put up verbenone patches in here. It offers some protection, but it’s not complete.”
“It will be a sad day when that happens,” she said. “There should always be places like this.”