A Bold Plan to Save the Last Whitebark Pines

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Melissa Jenkins usually doesn’t take pictures on hikes in Montana’s Whitefish Range. Here, the whitebark pine that she works to restore has been so decimated by a fungus that gray skeletal ghost forests reign, haunting symbols of a once widespread species. But last summer, she paused to snap a shot of survivors flanking the trail, ragged but defiant. “It felt like walking through soldiers standing guard even though they had little left to give to the battle,” she recalls. “Walking through ghost forests is somber, because you can envision what once was, and you aren’t sure if it will ever be that way again.”

For 30 years, Jenkins has been working to save these trees, which grow where no other trees dare. They grow in sterile soils on exposed slopes, marking the tree line, and they provide habitat and forage for birds and bears where there is nothing else. “It represents wildness. It represents my passion for the outdoors,” Jenkins says. “It’s a keystone species so important to high-elevation ecosystems. Man introduced the blister rust that has decimated this species, and I feel like it’s our responsibility to try and help restore the species.”

Jenkins is a founding member of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, and she retired from the US Forest Service last summer. Retirement changed little. She became a federal contractor spearheading a restoration strategy for the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, which covers 18 million acres straddling the Continental Divide in northern Montana and southern Canada.

Today, there are more dead whitebark pines in the United States than live ones, according to the Forest Service. In some areas, including northwest Montana, where Jenkins is based, up to 90 percent of the whitebark have perished. In Canada, the trees have been listed as endangered since 2012. They have fallen prey to the ravages of blister rust infection and pine beetle infestation, exacerbated by climate change in recent decades.

The range of whitebark pines extends north to British Columbia, south to northern Nevada, west to the Pacific Northwest, and east to Wyoming, growing at up to 12,000 feet, their trunks often contorted by harsh winds. They are a keystone species critical to ecosystem health. Their high-protein, high-calorie seeds (1 gram has between 5,000 and 7,700 calories) are important food for more than 100 species, including grizzly bears, birds, and squirrels. They are among the first to regenerate after fires, a “nurse tree,” providing shade and shelter from the wind for smaller, slow-growing species. And their candelabra canopy slows snowmelt, helping to regulate runoff and mitigate spring flooding and summer drought, important to drinking and agricultural water supplies. Without whitebarks, the West faces a more perilous future.

For a decade, environmental groups have unsuccessfully pushed for the whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis, to be protected under the Endangered Species Act in the US. In late November, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed giving it threatened species status. Jenkins and others working to resurrect the species hope that the new attention will bolster funding for innovative answers: combining old-fashioned seed collection and grafting techniques with modern strategies to identify trees resilient to the fungus, collect their seeds, and then plant seedlings in places where they will thrive.

“It’s one of the most rigorous, forward-thinking forest restoration efforts in the country. Geneticists, field biologists, field foresters, and nursery staff are engaged in this and thinking through what’s needed,” says Eric Sprague, vice president of forest restoration for American Forests, a nonprofit that has partnered with the Forest Service and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation to help plant 700,000 trees so far.

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