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Fire, birds, bears and trees. Conservation and restoration of whitebark pine ecosystems. Harsh Environment. High elevation (above 7500 ft) Cold, moist winters with cool moist summers Short growing season (<60-80 days). Importance of whitebark pine.

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Fire birds bears and trees

Fire, birds, bears and trees

Conservation and restoration of

whitebark pine ecosystems

Harsh environment
Harsh Environment

  • High elevation (above 7500 ft)

  • Cold, moist winters with cool moist summers

  • Short growing season (<60-80 days)

Importance of whitebark pine
Importance of whitebark pine

  • Broad tree crowns act as snow fences, helping to slowly release water into the high mountain streams, extending the stream flow to the valleys below into summer

  • Food for wildlife, including the Clark’s nutcracker and black and grizzly bears

  • Aesthetically pleasing for humans

Baker Lake, Selway Bitterroot Wilderness Area

Whitebark pine seeds are important to animals
Whitebark pine seeds are important to animals

Clark s nutcrackers and whitebark pine co evolved
Clark’s nutcrackers and whitebark pine co-evolved

  • Nutcrackers cache the seeds preferentially in open and burned areas

  • This gives whitebark pine a distinct advantage over other conifers in regenerating large, burned areas

  • Lanner: "the habits of Clark's nutcrackers account for the distribution, site preference, successional status, population age structure, and spacing of whitebark pine".

  • Cache seeds 1-3 cm deep

  • Each bird can cache as many as 22,000 seeds each year

Functionally extinct in some areas
Functionally extinct in some areas

  • ~30% of trees are dead and ~70% were infected with blister rust with an average of 25% crown kill in and around Glacier National Park

  • Moderate to high whitebark pine mortality across 61% of the subalpine forest landscapes in the 600,000-ha Bob Marshall Wilderness area

  • In Montana, 42% of all whitebark pine trees on permanent plots died in the 20 years between 1971 to 1992

Whitebark pine decline
Whitebark pine decline

  • Whitebark pine has declined from 34% of potential whitebark pine habitat historically (~1900) to 19% currently (~ 1990) in Idaho and Montana

  • Decline due to introduced disease, fire exclusion and advancing succession

  • Fires allow for mass selection against the introduced white pine blister rust

  • Whitebark pine is likely to be sensitive to climate change

Ghost forests
Ghost forests

  • White pine blister rust

  • Mountain pine beetle

  • Fire exclusion

  • Advancing succession

Fire ecology of whitebark pine
Fire ecology of whitebark pine

  • Fires recycle accumulated biomass, recycles nutrients, rejuvenates vegetation, and maintains the diversity of landscapes

  • WBP is readily killed by fires, but sometimes survives surface fires

  • Fire creates regeneration opportunities

  • Clark’s nutcrackers disperse the seeds of whitebark pine. They prefer to cache them in open and burned areas -- conditions where whitebark pine thrives.

  • In the absence of fire, other trees eventually replace whitebark pine on most sites

Reconstructing fire history
Reconstructing fire history

We can date fire scars. There are three fire scars on this cross-section of a whitebark pine tree cut from a living tree in 1988

Sometimes we can map and date past fires from the age of trees that grew post-fire

We can also analyze maps of historical fires

Fire exclusion
Fire exclusion

  • Fires were historically infrequent, and of mixed or stand-replacing severity

  • Large fires historically lasted weeks or months

  • Modern fires are usually extinguished at lower elevations before they spread to whitebark pine

  • Subalpine fuels are usually too moist to support extensive fires until late in the summer during unusually dry years when fire managers are unwilling to risk fire spread from drier areas

White pine blister rust
White pine blister rust

  • This Eurasian fungus was introduced to the Pacific Northwest in 1910

  • Whitebark pine is very susceptible, as are all 5-needled pines

  • It reduces cone and seed production long before it kills trees

  • 3 to 8% of whitebark pine trees are resistant

  • Blister rust was found in 59% of the stands sampled across the Intermountain region, with increasing incidence and intensity over the last 30 years in the northern Rockies (Smith and Hoffman 1998).

Human induced climate change threatens
Human-induced climate change threatens

  • Whitebark pine will be lost from Yellowstone National Park with the warm temperatures and dry summers predicted with a doubling of the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere

  • Lightning fires are predicted to occur more frequently if carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere doubles

  • Fire frequency, extent and severity of fires in subalpine forests could increase

  • The outlook is bleak because of blister rust and advancing succession

Restoration approaches
Restoration approaches

  • Restore natural fire regimes

    • Wildland fire use (lightning)

    • Prescribed burns (planned ignitions)

    • Suppression is most common fire management action in most wilderness areas and parks

  • Cut to favor whitebark pine

    • Some is done

    • Often legally or practically impossible

  • Breed rust-resistant individuals

    • Some people are simulating bird caches

    • Potential for widespread planting is low in wilderness areas and parks

Restore natural fire regimes
Restore natural fire regimes

  • Fires allow for mass selection of blister-rust resistant trees

  • Using prescribed burning is effective but challenging because suitable conditions are rare

  • Also use wildland fire for resource benefit (“let-burn”) policy


  • Harsh, fragile environment

  • Long response time

  • Most whitebark pine forests are in parks and wilderness areas

    • Subject to fire suppression, may not support wildland fire use

    • Active management, other than wildland fire use, is often prohibited or discouraged

  • Access is often limited