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.

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How to save a slow growing tree species

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


Hi, SHORT WAVErs. Producer Berly McCoy here with the story of a tree that, in my neck of the woods in Montana, is a pretty big deal. It's called whitebark pine, and it's special for a lot of reasons. First of all, it lives high up in the mountains, its habitat stretching way above where many other trees grow.

SHINAASHA PETE: Our trees here, whitebark pine on the reservation, the habitat for them runs from, like, 6,000 - well, 4,000 to 8,000 feet elevation here.

MCCOY: This is ShiNaasha Pete.

PETE: (Non-English language spoken) ShiNaasha Pete. I live up here in Polson, Mont. I work for the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes.

MCCOY: As a forester, ShiNaasha runs the whitebark pine program, so she knows a lot about this tree.

PETE: Those are some tough, hearty elements that you have to face up there. You have the wind, you have below freezing temperatures. This year, our snowpack didn't even melt till the third week of June. So it makes it a - such a strong, strong tree.

MCCOY: ShiNaasha recalls one in particular called the "Avatar" tree.

PETE: It takes at least two of us to both reach around it. It's huge. It's just - it has these huge branches that are just like a candle. It's kind of like a gray-silver-ish when - especially when they die, they look like skeletons. It's completely white.

MCCOY: But the reason that this tree is so special isn't just its strength and its beauty. Whitebark pine is what's known as a keystone species.

PETE: There's many different species that rely upon whitebark pine. And that's not just animal species. You know, this is all species of life that have a balance within that ecosystem up there in the high elevations of the mountains.

MCCOY: The entire ecosystem relies on it for things like food, a habitat in the high country and shading, which prevents snow from melting too quickly. That, otherwise, could lead to flooding in the valleys.

PETE: Whitebark pine is also a first food of the Salish Kootenai Pend d'Oreille people here. So for the CSKT people here on the reservation, their ancestors used the whitebark pine seeds or nuts - you say whitebark pine nuts. They used those as a food source within their original diet.

MCCOY: But whitebark pine is facing multiple threats. Increased fire intensity from climate change and colonial fire suppression practices, infestation by mountain pine beetles and a deadly fungus called blister rust are all collectively killing this tree. ShiNaasha's goal is to increase the number of these critically important trees on the reservation.

PETE: We want healthy, balanced, sustainable forests, the same as our ancestors had, because there was that cultural respect and balance between Earth and man.

MCCOY: Given that these threats have knocked whitebark pine numbers down in some places 90%, this may seem like a daunting task. But ShiNaasha has a plan.

PETE: And in hopes that the ones that we are planting have a genetic resistance to this fungus called white pine blister rust.

MCCOY: Today on the show - the race to save the heart of an ecosystem, the whitebark pine and how one forester is playing her part in a huge effort to save this foundational species. I'm Berly McCoy and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


MCCOY: One thing you need to know about whitebark pine, this endangered tree that grows from areas in British Columbia and Alberta down to California, is that it has a long history, and I mean literally. These trees live, on average, between 500 and 1,000 years. And the oldest documented one is even older than that. This means its whole lifespan is on a completely different, slower timeline than human lifespans.

PETE: Whitebark pine is slow growing. So we're growing seedlings in our greenhouse for it. We have to have them in there two years before we can even go out and plant them.

MCCOY: And getting those seeds to plant is a whole process for a few reasons. Remember all those threats I mentioned - fires, climate change and mountain pine beetles? Most of these, the whole population of whitebark pine trees will struggle against. But some of the trees are naturally resistant to one of the threats - blister rust - which is what we're focusing our episode on today. It's a fungus that was introduced to North America around 1900, and it spread outward over the continent in the coming decades. So first ShiNaasha has to pinpoint the blister rust-resistant trees. Then she has to figure out which of those rust-resistant trees are producing seeds because a whitebark pine doesn't do that until they're 60 to 80 years old, on average.

PETE: The seedlings that I touch in the greenhouse, I will never in my lifetime get to see them mature.

MCCOY: And reaching those seeds has its own challenges.

PETE: The cones - this is the best part about whitebark pine - they only grow at the very, very top, at the end of the branches. And that is the money right there, since that's where it holds all the seeds that has such the high protein source.

MCCOY: So these seeds are about 50% fat, which makes them a great food source for wildlife. But not so great if you're Kellen Kachur (ph), a tribal forestry technician trying to collect the seeds before they get eaten. The solution is a flexible mesh cage.

KELLEN KACHUR: So that cage is - it's meant to protect the cones on the tree, on the whitebark pine.

MCCOY: Kellen spends his days climbing to the tops of chosen trees, using ropes and his harness, and places these mesh cages around the cones in the springtime. When fall comes, he comes back, removes the cages and collects the cones. And he loves his job.

KACHUR: I'm willing to climb any day of the week (laughter) and weekend.

MCCOY: I went out on a crisp fall day to watch him at his craft.


MCCOY: My husband and I drove up to one of their local whitebark pine sites, up a mountain road.

Oh, we're following ShiNaasha and Kellen. And I'm a little carsick.

On the drive up, we saw empty patches from logging, as well as a ton of charred dead trees from an arson fire. But eventually, we reached an area that was intact and full of trees.

The views are pretty spectacular. We can see Flathead Lake. The higher up you go, the farther along the larch are in their senescence.

We stopped at an elevation of around 6,200 feet. We parked the truck and followed Kellen and ShiNaasha to a tagged whitebark pine. But...

KACHUR: The weather at this moment, I would say, is probably not the right weather to be climbing. OK, right now, we are dealing with a little bit of rain. Actually looks like snow is starting to form. The wind is starting to pick up. It's between probably 15, 20 miles an hour.

MCCOY: Kellen didn't get to don the harness and ropes that day, but he did explain what it's like once he gets to the top.

KACHUR: It's almost unexplainable. If you ever walk out and you see these trees swaying in the wind, you just got to picture yourself moving with those trees. These trees will do that without wind when you're up there. I wouldn't necessarily say I like it, but I can tolerate it (laughter). I can tolerate it up there. It's fun when you get used to climbing.

MCCOY: Next, it's time to get the cones.

KACHUR: I will do my best not to bend these branches as much as possible 'cause they will break. I will try to slide the cage off with the cones. Usually, the cones are already falling into the cage. So naturally, when we're out caging, it's pretty smooth sailing. It's probably the easier climbing portion.

MCCOY: Sometimes they get lucky and find cages on the ground, as was the case on this day.

PETE: They probably fell off just naturally from the wind.

MCCOY: After they collect the cones, they take them back to the shop to dry and then pop them open to pull out the seeds.

PETE: Yeah, it just varies also for how many seeds you can pull off a cone. There's some where I've pulled, like, 30 seeds, and that's a small cone right there. And then there's, like, others where I've pulled, like, 78 seeds off of them to 80 seeds, all stacked in there.

MCCOY: ShiNaasha says that the seedlings her team planted in 2019 so far show around a 90% survival rate, though it'll be decades before these seedlings mature. It's a big step forward in her goal to help restore whitebark pine populations and not just for the trees' sake.

PETE: It's ecosystem restoration. And that's one of my goals, is to help restore enough, you know, whitebark plantations here within the reservation to where they can start seed collecting and utilizing these seeds within their diet, within their ceremonies. So that's what we are trying to focus our management efforts back to today, is we want healthy, balanced ecosystems. I'm hoping that these younger generations are listening and hear what we're trying to share and the importance of it, and that, you know, they'll continue it. 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. It'll still be there.

MCCOY: It sounds like a great legacy.

PETE: Yeah, it is, huh?

MCCOY: There is so much more to the whitebark pine story, and many people have put years of hard work in to save this tree. If you want to learn more, check out Season 2 of the "Headwaters Podcast" by the Glacier Park Conservancy, which is entirely about whitebark pine. The link is in our episode notes.

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. Brendan Crump is our podcast coordinator. Beth Donovan is our senior director of programming, and the senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Berly McCoy. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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