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Christine Wilcox’s Blog

Working to Save Whitebark Pine

Christine Wilcox

Posted January 23, 2013

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Most of the recent scientific findings and current media coverage regarding whitebark pine have painted a fairly bleak picture of the future for this high-elevation tree.  Particularly in the greater Yellowstone area, it is estimated that 70% or more of the whitebark pine trees have been lost in the past decade due to mortalities caused primarily by pine beetle infestation and secondarily by a fungus called blister rust.  The newest of the scientific studies now indicates that because whitebark pine did not co-evolve with pine beetles like lower elevation trees have (i.e. lodgepole pine), pure stands of whitebark pine trees are in greater peril than mixed stands.  Dr. Ken Raffa and his colleagues have been studying the chemical responses of whitebark pine to pine beetle attacks and comparing them to the chemical responses of other trees.  Their research supports other scientific findings that demonstrate the poorer defense mechanisms of whitebark pine relative to other pine tree species.  But more novel and potentially more important is the finding that the pine beetles still preferentially colonize lower elevation host species over whitebark pine when given a choice.   What this means is that although beetles that are able to survive the harsh environment of pure whitebark pine stands (thanks to climate change) attack and kill these trees, in mixed stands of trees, beetles are less likely to attack whitebark pine.  As an optimist, I see this as a silver lining.

 Young whitebark.JPGNRDC has been involved in whitebark pine conservation for over nine years.  In that time, we have worked with the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies, organizations, and scientists dedicated to both the preservation of whitebark pine and understanding the ecology of this long-lived tree particularly in the face of climate change.  Most recently we supported and participated in research efforts with Dr. Jesse Logan, Wally Macfarlane and the US Forest Service using a new method called Landscape Assessment System (LAS) to determine with aerial flights the extent to which whitebark pine has been killed by pine beetles in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  

The US Forest Service is also conducting genetic analyses on whitebark pine sapplings to identify individuals with genetic traits that will result in a greater defensive response to beetle attack and fungal infection.  In addition, the Forest Service has a 15-acre nursery of whitebark pine juveniles identified as being resistant to blister rust.  These are but two examples of multiple projects in process right now and many more are being planned and proposed.  Now that we know there is also a host preference playing out in mixed stands of pine trees, this information can guide future restoration work and could increase our ability to protect the whitebark pine that remains in the ecosystem.  The kind of collaboration and cooperation among a variety of groups, based on the best available science, is the best recipe for creating successful conservation efforts of any species.  We here at NRDC have been impressed and pleased with the level of shared concern and cooperation among the major players involved in whitebark pine protection and restoration. With these collaborative endeavors and fingers crossed, whitebark pine and many other species may survive climate change after all.

(Photo: Christine Wilcox)

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