Montana State University

Whitebark pine in peril, issues and solutions to be discussed Sept. 20-21 at MSU

September 13, 2013 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN – Whitebark pine is declining rapidly in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, resulting in less food for grizzly bears and other animals, according to organizers of a Sept. 20-21 workshop at Montana State University.

To continue addressing the challenges that caused the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation to form in 2001, the group will devote its annual science meeting to whitebark pine restoration. The meeting is open to the public and will include a keynote address, scientific talks and field trips.

The free public address on “Whitebark Pine in Peril: What Can be Done?” will be given at 7:30 p.m.  Friday, Sept. 20, in Ballroom B of MSU’s Strand Union Building. Presenters will be Diana Tomback, director of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and professor with the University of Colorado Denver;  Liz Davy, foundation board member and Ashton/Island Park district ranger in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest; and  Jami Westerhold, director of forest restoration for American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization.

Earlier in the day, experts from MSU, the University of Montana and a variety of federal agencies from the United States and Canada will give 20-minute talks on issues related to whitebark pine. Some speakers will discuss restoration and management. Others will focus on research and development.  Specific talks will include such topics as pine cone production in the Custer National Forest, health in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and whitebark pine restoration on the Flathead National Forest.

Two field trips will also be offered. The first, on Saturday, Sept. 21, will take participants to Fairy Lake in the Bridger Mountains where one of the more easily accessible stands of whitebark pine to Bozeman is located.  The second, on Sunday, Sept. 22, will go to the Beartooth Highway if more than six people sign up.

Whitebark pine is a key indicator of the health of an ecosystem, said Dave McWethy, assistant research professor in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences and co-principal investigator for the Northern Rockies Fire Science Network. Unfortunately, it has been hit hard by a synergy of stressors: drought, white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetle infestations and competition from other trees, possibly due to fire suppression.

A major result of declining whitebark pine is a shortage of whitebark pine nuts, which affects animals from grizzly bears to birds, McWethy said. Whitebark pine produce a high-fat, energy-rich nut that’s one of the most important plant foods eaten by grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, according to “Yellowstone’s Wildlife in Transition,” a 2013 book that involved several MSU faculty members and alumni. When whitebark pine nuts are abundant, bears eat them almost exclusively from late August through early November.

When production is down, the grizzlies head down the mountain to find other foods, McWethy said.  In the process of foraging, they’re more likely to encounter humans. An Aug. 28 article in the Jackson Hole News & Guide said, in fact, that whitebark pine cone output has fallen by 84 percent this year and could result in a heavy year of hunter-grizzly bear conflicts in the Greater Yellowstone area. Whitebark pine nuts are in the pine cones.

Whitebark pine is one of six conifer species that occur commonly in the Greater Yellow Ecosystem, according to “Yellowstone’s Wildlife in Transition.” Whitebark pine currently occupies about 17 percent of Yellowstone National Park and 10 percent of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It has low commercial value, but high ecological value. It typically grows in harsh conditions, which include poor soils, steep slopes, high winds and extreme cold.

Because whitebark pine only grows at high elevations, restoration is a challenge, McWethy said. He added that “Because of warming temperatures, it’s thought to be water stressed and likely more sensitive to blister rust and mountain pine beetle attacks.”

Tomback said the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation was officially formed in 2001, but many members of the group had worked together since the mid-1980s on whitebark pine research.

“We originally put together this loosely organized research group because of the perception that whitebark pine was declining,” she said.

Whitebark pine continues to decline, but thanks to the work of many individuals, restoration strategies and methods have been developed and are currently in the early stages of being tested and refined, Tomback said. She added that the group not only advocates for whitebark pine, but other high-elevation pine relatives that are undergoing similar declines.

“They are somewhat behind whitebark pine, but it’s not looking rosy,” Tomback said. “The good news is that lessons have been learned from whitebark pine that may prevent or mitigate losses in these other species.”

Whitebark pine itself is a foundation species that not only impacts animals, ecosystems and biodiversity, but humans, as well, through its role in sustaining watersheds and preventing soil erosion, Tomback said.  In addition, the seeds were historically used as food by Native Americans.

The upcoming conference of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation is co-sponsored by the Northern Rockies Fire Science Network, MSU and the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

A $10 donation is requested at the door for the whitebark pine workshop and field trips. For more details and a complete schedule, go to


Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or