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Whitebark pine seed orchard holds species' future

BOZEMAN DAILY CHRONICLE - GALLATIN GATEWAY – High on a ridge above the Gallatin Valley, you can't see the forest but now you can see the trees. Hopefully, the forest will follow in another half century.

On Thursday, two forestry technicians inched their way through a clearing, depositing tiny whitebark pine seedlings in the pre-dug holes that formed a grid across the slope.

Whitebark pines seedlings are not only more sensitive – they're a lot more valuable.

The seedlings in the Gallatin seed orchard and nearby test and holding pits could be a last hope for a pine species that is rapidly disappearing due to a combination of pests and climate change.

If they disappear, that's one less food source for grizzly bears, Clark's nutcracker and squirrels that depend on the high-fat seeds in the fall.

Over eons, whitebark pine trees have adapted to live in the high, cold environments of the Rocky Mountains. Although they take longer to grow and reproduce, their lofty habitat has allowed them to escape many of the parasites and herbivores that attack trees at lower elevations.

By the 1980s, that advantage started to diminish as blister rust, a European pine disease, finally made its way into the northern Rocky Mountains.

Shortly after blister rust started killing whitebark pine in the Great Yellowstone area, another threat arrived from the south in the form of the bark beetle, which swarmed farther north thanks to a warming climate.

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Friday, July 18, 2014