For thousands of years, the Whitebark Pine has provided a valuable food source for birds and bears throughout the Mountain West. But dwindling numbers are forcing forest managers to act.
The tree spans from Alberta and British Columbia in Canada to the Mountain West states of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and parts of Nevada. But, the number of these trees throughout the region is declining, as much as 90 percent in some areas.
Melissa Jenkins works with the Forest Service at Flathead National Forest in Montana. She says an invasive disease known as blister rust is a major culprit.
"It has spread and just decimated Whitebark Pine, because the tree didn't have much resistance to it, hadn't built it up evolutionarily," she says. "And, so they're very much susceptible to the rust."
However, she says her team did find some mature trees that had built up a resistance. They are now using those to create more disease-resistant generations.
The Whitebark Pine has its own natural challenges, mainly that it takes 50-75 years before the tree becomes mature enough to create cones and seeds. To speed up this process, Jenkins is taking branches from healthy, mature trees and grafting them onto younger ones.
"That branch still thinks it's on the top of a 100-year-old tree and is supposed to be producing cones," she says.
Another helpful tool for Jenkins is prescribed burns, as fire helps prepare the land for seeds, while removing the Whitebark Pine's competition for resources.
A number of local and regional conservation groups are getting involved, with the ultimate goal of creating a natural restoration plan.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration among Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.