Climate change, beetles and fungus: Saving whitebark pine : Short Wave The whitebark pine is a hardy tree that grows in an area stretching from British Columbia, Canada south to parts of California and east to Montana. It's a keystone species in its subalpine and timberline ecosystems and plays an outsized role in its interactions with other species and the land — feeding and providing habitat for other animals, and providing shade to slow glacial melt to the valleys below. But it's increasingly threatened — by more intense fires, by mountain pine beetle infestations and by a deadly fungus called blister rust. Today, producer Berly McCoy takes the microphone to share the ongoing efforts by reforestation forester ShiNaasha Pete and others to save this important species.

Check out the Headwaters Podcast: https://glacier.org/headwaters/

Reach the show by emailing shortwave@npr.org.

How to save a slow growing tree species

How to save a slow growing tree species

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Sun-bleached skeletons of long-dead whitebark pine trees stand at the top of a 7,200-foot-high ridge along the Reservation Divide on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana. With annual average temperatures in Montana rising, the whitebark pine that were not previously threatened are now facing an increase in blister rust infections, mountain pine beetle infestations and wildfire. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sun-bleached skeletons of long-dead whitebark pine trees stand at the top of a 7,200-foot-high ridge along the Reservation Divide on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana. With annual average temperatures in Montana rising, the whitebark pine that were not previously threatened are now facing an increase in blister rust infections, mountain pine beetle infestations and wildfire.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Stretching from British Columbia, Canada down to parts of California and east to Montana, live the whitebark pine. The tree grows in subalpine and timberline zones — elevations anywhere from 4,000 to almost 9,000 ft. It's an unforgiving space. The wind is harsh. Plants and animals confront sub-freezing temperatures, often until summertime.

The whitebark pine has historically thrived in these lands.

But today, the tree species is in trouble. So much so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the whitebark pine as a threatened species in December 2022. Increased fire intensity from climate change and colonial fire suppression practices, infestation by mountain pine beetles and a deadly fungus called blister rust — they're collectively killing this tree.

Losing whitebark pine on the landscape does not mean just losing one type of tree. It's a keystone species, meaning it has a large, outsized impact on its ecosystem. The tree provides habitat to small animals, shelter for larger ones and food for local fauna like birds and bears. Historically, the seeds have been a first food for local Indigenous peoples such as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The tree also provides shade, slowing glacial melt that would otherwise flood the valleys below.

Researchers like ShiNaasha Pete are working to restore the tree. ShiNaasha is a reforestation forester and head of the whitebark pine program for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in northwestern Montana. They hope to successfully grow a new generation of trees that are naturally resistant at least to the blister rust fungus. It is a labor-intensive effort and it will take decades to see the full effect.

"Our main goal is just to constantly, continuously plant as many seedlings as we can in hopes that the ones that we are planting have a genetic resistance to this fungus," says Pete. In some spots, the population of the tree has already plummeted by 90 percent. But, as ShiNaasha tells Short Wave producer Berly McCoy, she remains steadfast in her work.

"I'm hoping that these younger generations are listening and hear what we're trying to share and the importance of it and that they'll continue it," ruminates ShiNaasha. "That's what I look forward to and that's what I know — that it'll pay off and that whitebark will still be there."

To learn more about the whitebark pine, check out the Headwaters Podcast.

Listen to Short Wave on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

Reach the show by emailing shortwave@npr.org.

This podcast was produced by Liz Metzger, edited by our managing producer Rebecca Ramirez and fact checked by Anil Oza. The audio engineer was Josh Newell.