Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Nursing the whitebark

At the U.S. Forest Service nursery in Coeur d'Alene, horticulturist Dave Foushee keeps watch over a pallet of whitebark pine trees, each about seven years old. The whitebark reaches maximum cone-bearing when it is about 250 years old. 
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The picture is increasingly bleak for the Inland Northwest’s last remaining stands of whitebark pine.

The tree, a critical food source for everything from birds to grizzly bears, has quietly and dramatically disappeared from the high country thanks to an exotic fungus, hungry beetles and years of wildfire suppression. Now, budget cuts may slow restoration efforts.

About $50,000 has recently been cut from a U.S. Forest Service project to help protect remaining stands in the Selkirk Mountains. Bonners Ferry District Ranger Mike Herrin hopes to keep the work going by seeking money from the North Idaho resource advisory committee, a citizens group that distributes federal funds to counties with large tracts of public land.

“The tree has just been knocked back so far. We’re just trying to give it a helping hand,” Herrin said. “Whether it has fur, scales, feathers, needles or leaves, it’s just part of our job to maintain those species on the landscape.”

Upward of 90 percent of the region’s trees have been killed by white pine blister rust and mountain pine beetle infestations, according to Forest Service surveys. The decline has been most dramatic in North Idaho and northwest Montana. Mortality rates are skyrocketing in central Idaho and the Yellowstone ecosystem, said Robert Keane, a research ecologist with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont. About a quarter of Yellowstone’s whitebark pines are dying.

“This spells some dire consequences,” Keane said of the accelerating decline. “Our whitebark pine stands – if you want to see them, you better go to Yellowstone now.”

Seeds from the trees’ cones make up about 40 percent of the diet for grizzly bears and are an especially valuable source of fat, protein and carbohydrates for the bears as they emerge from dens in spring, Keane said. Bumper cone crops have even been linked with bears producing twins the next season. Their absence from North Idaho might be one reason the bears continue to slide toward extinction, though biologists say huckleberries remain the most important food source for grizzlies west of the Continental Divide.

The trees have been in trouble since the 1910 introduction of white pine blister rust. A second epidemic struck in the late 1990s, when mountain pine beetle populations exploded and began chewing through surviving stands in the northern Rockies. The tree has been nearly wiped out in Glacier National Park, Keane said. “It’s declined so much in the last three to four decades, we really don’t know what effect that had on grizzly bears. … There’s no telling how many bears inhabited those ridgetops when we had mature whitebark pine.”

The Selkirk Mountains northwest of Bonners Ferry hold the Inland Northwest’s largest remaining stand north of Idaho’s Clearwater River region. The Forest Service began a three-year project last summer to protect 1,700 acres of the healthiest trees in the Selkirks. The work involved cutting back competing tree species and conducting prescribed burns. The agency has also been collecting seeds from trees that appear to be resistant to blister rust.

With so few healthy trees left, Forest Service employees have even begun using wire cages to protect individual cones from hungry squirrels, birds and bears. A chemical substance that wards off invading bark beetles has also been used.

Although scientists are racing to save the species, the tree refuses to be rushed. Other pine seedlings might start producing cones after 15 years. “Whitebark pine takes 60 years, and it doesn’t reach maximum cone bearing age until 250 years,” Keane said, adding that he is hopeful restoration will someday take place. “It’s not going to happen in my lifetime or my kids’ lifetimes. We’re looking at decades or maybe centuries before we see any results.”

The state’s oldest whitebark pine, in central Idaho, began growing a century before Columbus landed in the New World.

When seeds are collected from the remaining trees – 110 parent trees have been identified in the wild – they’re put in the greenhouse equivalent of an intensive care unit to ensure maximum survival, said Dave Foushee, tree improvement horticulturist at the Forest Service nursery in Coeur d’Alene. At least 2,000 seedlings are growing at the nursery. Foushee offered a brief tour Friday of a plot of knee-high whitebark pines.

“These trees, believe it or not, they’re seven years old,” he said.

Foushee also keeps a fenced, irrigated plot of propagated trees on Lone Mountain north of Coeur d’Alene. This year, his budget for maintaining the site has been cut back to $1,000. “That’s barely a drop in the bucket,” he said.

Like many federal agencies, the Forest Service is facing cuts in many programs. But there still seems to be enough money for work involving timber harvests or fuel reduction projects, said Phil Hough, president of the Sandpoint chapter of the Idaho Native Plant Society.

“It’s a shame that the part of forest health that still gets funded is the part that cuts trees,” said Hough, of Sagle, Idaho. “These trees occupy such an important niche of the environment.”