COLUMBIA FALLS, Mont. (AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month proposed listing the whitebark pine as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
For the last 24 years, Glacier National Park has been quietly working to conserve the species over its 1 million acres of wildlands.
It is no small task.
The Park first began collecting cones from “plus” trees in 1997. Plus trees are adult, cone-bearing trees that have shown resistance to blister rust, noted Park vegetation biologist Dawn LaFleur.
The rust is a fungal infection introduced from eastern white pine nursery stock from Europe in a shipment into Vancouver, British Columbia in 1910.
Over the past 110 years it has decimated five-needle pine species across the western U.S., including whitebark pine.
In addition to blister rust, the trees have been impacted by mountain pine beetle, high intensity wildfire and climate change; though in Glacier, rust has proven to be the primary culprit, infecting more than 70 percent of Glacier’s whitebark pine.
But the surviving trees have shown a resistance to the rust. Once their seeds are collected, they are propagated in a Forest Service nursery, then eventually shipped back to Glacier to be planted.
The first trees were planted on Grinnell Point in the Many Glacier Valley in 2000 in a small area that had been burned by a previous wildfire.
Today, Park biologists and technicians plant about 500 rust resistant seedlings annually. The survivability rate is about 59 percent over 24 sites, LaFleur noted. That’s better than the average in the west, which is 30 to 40 percent. So far they’ve planted more than 25,000 trees.