Work crews from the USDA Forest Service, Youth Conservation Corps and Brundage Mountain Resort are teaming up in an effort to conserve an at-risk species of tree. Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is in rapid decline across its range, which has led to it being proposed for federal listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Whitebark pine is a slow-growing tree that has been documented to live over 1,000 years. This keystone species occurs in harsh, exposed sites at high elevations across the mountain west and helps stabilize soil, regulate runoff, and provide valuable nutrition to numerous wildlife species through its seeds.
While the silver-gray skeletons of dead whitebark pine are one of the most recognizable features of Brundage Mountain’s summit ridge, Brundage is also home to some of the healthiest, blister rust resistant populations of living whitebark pine trees in Idaho. An intensive “work week” to preserve and protect the vulnerable species took place from July 25-July 28.
Teams from Brundage Mountain Resort and the McCall and Council Youth Conservation Corps worked alongside engine crews and botany and silviculture experts from the Payette National Forest on a program that aims to identify existing stands, remove competing species, and mitigate fire hazards.
The main threats to the whitebark pine are altered fire and climate regimes, white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola) and the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae). White pine blister rust is a fungal disease that infects whitebark pine. Trees infected with blister rust are also more susceptible to mountain pine beetle. Either of these threats can kill the trees. Historically, natural wildfire cycles would remove competing species, but decades of fire suppression have allowed them to dominate the whitebark pine and starve them of nutrients and sunlight.
The Brundage whitebark population has been tested and confirmed to be in the upper 25th percentile of genetic resistance to white pine blister rust, making the conservation of the future seed crops and cone-producing trees a high priority.
A 2008 Environmental Assessment identified units for whitebark pine stand improvement treatments on the main ridgeline of Brundage Mountain Resort. Proposed treatments are thinning of competing vegetation and planting blister rust resistant seedlings from seed stock collected from whitebark pine trees in those units.
“We hope that by growing and planting blister rust resistant seedlings grown from seed collected at Brundage Mountain Resort, we can increase the overall resistance of whitebark pine populations to white pine blister rust,” says Payette National Forest Botanist, Kristin Williams. “Improving the health of individual trees and the stand helps to ensure that these trees will continue to make blister rust resistant seeds to be dispersed, both naturally and with assistance, throughout adjacent lands for decades to come.”
Brundage Mountain Resort has been a longtime supporter of whitebark pine restoration efforts. One round of cone collection and seedling planting has already occurred. A second round of seedling planting will happen this fall.
Additional conservation activities include pruning white pine blister rust infected branches and thinning and removing competing vegetation around whitebark pine trees, including subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, and lodgepole pine. Thinning the competing species leaves more nutrients available for the whitebark pine and also makes the stand more resistant to natural wildfires. In addition to the physical work happening on the mountain, Brundage Mountain resort staff will promote whitebark pine-related educational activities on the mountain during summer months.
“The whitebark pine trees on the top of Brundage Mountain are one of the most recognizable features of the summit ecosystem,” says Brundage Mountain General Manager, Ken Rider. “While the delicate silver-gray branches of the dead trees can be beautiful in a snow-covered environment, we want to ensure that the healthy, living trees can thrive in the future. We’re excited to partner with the Forest Service and Youth Conservation Corps to step up these conservation efforts.”
Identifying tree stands and studying potential whitebark pine seedling planting areas will be part of any future terrain expansions on the mountain.
“It’s important to us to be good stewards of the land on which we operate,” says Rider. “We’re excited to get started on this latest work plan and to help educate the public on the importance of the whitebark pine in the alpine ecosystem.”
In addition to its work with the Payette National Forest and the Youth Conservation Corps, Brundage Mountain is also working to become certified as a through the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.