Genetics key to saving whitebark pine, group says

2011-06-01T00:00:00Z 2011-06-01T07:29:13Z Genetics key to saving whitebark pine, group says

By MARTIN KIDSTON

Gazette Wyoming Bureau‌

The Billings Gazette

CODY, Wyo. — A group of biologists, foresters and ecologists concerned about the impacts climate change and disease are having on whitebark pine forests announced a new strategy to save the tree from continuing decline.

The strategy, released Tuesday by members of the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, looks to address the loss of whitebark pine by pooling resources and getting management agencies working together.

“We’ll do what we can to manage whitebark pine in a strategic way across a large landscape,” said Kelly McCloskey, chair of the whitebark pine subcommittee, part of the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee.

“We’ve seen fairly high levels of mortality of cone-bearing trees on the landscape,” she said. “By working together, we feel we can make better use of funds, get better results, and learn more from our experiences.”

The new strategy sets management goals and priorities for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, along with the six national forests in three states that comprise the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Officials say impacts from white pine blister rust and the mountain pine beetle, combined with the effects of climate change, have resulted in a significant decline of whitebark pine across the landscape.

Fearing continued losses, the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee in 2006 began mapping the tree’s distribution and disease data. It also began developing a strategy to maintain the tree by emphasizing genetic conservation, both on and off the landscape.

Off the landscape, McCloskey said, a whitebark nursery is planned this year for the Gallatin National Forest. The plan looks to grow a genetic strain of whitebark pine that’s resistant to blister rust.

On the landscape, she said, officials will collect cones, sow whitebark seeds and work to defend trees known to be genetically resistant to blister rust from the second threat — the mountain pine beetle.

“If we were to lose a significant amount of genetic material, we’d end up with low genetic diversity, which would be bad over the long term,” McCloskey said. “There’s a concern that by doing nothing, we’d have a significant loss of seed-bearing trees and the amount of genetic material that’s out there.”

The strategy describes the whitebark pine as a hardy tree, one of the first to colonize sites with difficult growing conditions at higher elevations. As a result, it’s considered a foundation species for high-mountain ecosystems across the greater Yellowstone area.

The tree, which can live 1,500 years, doesn’t reproduce until it’s 70 to 100 years old. Once it’s established, however, it aids in the growth of other plants and provides shelter and food for numerous species, including the grizzly bear.

Whitebark pine occupies roughly 10 percent of the 24 million of the greater Yellowstone area, one of the largest intact ecosystems in the world.

While the tree has been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act, officials say that ruling is still months away.

Contact Martin Kidston at mkidston@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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