By Chris Peterson, Hungry Horse News
Columbia Fells, Mont. (AP) – The US Fish and Wildlife Service last month proposed listing whitebark pine that was threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
For the past 24 years, Glacier National Park has been quietly working to conserve its 1 million acres of wildlife species.
The park first began collecting cones in 1997 from “plus” trees. Also the trees are adult, cone-bearing trees that have shown resistance to blister corrosion, the famous park botanical biologist Don Lafleur.
Jung is a fungal infection initiated in 1910 in a shipment in Vancouver, British Columbia, from eastern white pine nursery stock from Europe.
In the past 110 years, it has destroyed five-needle pine species in the western US, including whitebark pine.
In addition to blister rust, trees have been affected by mountain pine beetles, high-intensity wildfires and climate change; Although in the glacier, rust has proved to be the primary culprit, infecting more than 70 percent of the glacier’s whitebark pine.
But the remaining trees have shown resistance to corrosion. Once their seeds are collected, they are propagated in a Forest Service nursery, then eventually sent back to the glacier to be planted.
The first trees were planted in 2000 in a small area at Grinnell Point in several glacier basins that had been ablaze by previous wildfires.
Today, park biologists and technicians plant around 500 rust-resistant seedlings annually. The survival rate is about 59 percent of the 24 sites, LaFleur noted. This is better than the average in the West, which is 30 to 40 percent. So far they have planted more than 25,000 trees.
If they come across one, the average pedestrian will not plant much trees. Whitebark pines grow slowly and trees that were planted 20 years ago are almost high.
It would be about 30 more years until they were able to reproduce and shed their own cones.
“We’re gone,” LaFleur said, or at least in our twilight years.
There are other hazards outside the rust including mountain pine beetles and the above mentioned fires. While fire helps stem competition from other species, Whitebark does not survive high-intensity blazes.
In the natural world, trees will be planted by birds and squirrels. Mainly the clerk’s nutcracker, which later presses the seeds into the seed for eating. But birds do not always return to the cache, so seeds germinate in new trees.
Without birds, there is little, if any, natural distribution. The park is currently conducting further research on Clarke’s nut cracker population. A member of the Jai family, it was once common in the glacier, it is not so much today.
Collecting seeds and transplanting by humans takes a lot of work. The crew climb a ladder and climb into the hills, often off-trail to reach the off tree. The cones are then hand picked and packed in backpacks.
Whitebark pine bays well into alpine environments over 6,500 feet high where the weather is harsh and can change at once. Altogether about a dozen people work annually as part of their work restoring the vegetation in the park in an effort to restore.
The crew targets specific locations to plant trees.
“We try to target the recent fire trail,” Lafelur said.
Fire marks are important on many fronts. For one, a fire-lit area provides some fresh nutrients to the soil. The trees below provide cover and fire drives away competing species.
They try to plant in the spring when the snake melts and after a good rain there is moisture in the soil or later in September.
The windows for planting are short, LaFelur said. In recent years, spring often leaps into a hot, waterless summer. Whitebark pines thrive in harsh conditions, but they require moisture to get a start on life.
Some ropes are also known to shrink in size during their first few years.
All told, the park has over 127 trees that monitor it and collect cones from it. Like transplanting, many are not easy to obtain and most are hiking.
Despite the physical effort, it is rewarding work.
“It’s very special,” Lafelur said. is very important. “
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