Global warming, beetles, and disease are pushing one of the west’s iconic trees near extinction. So biologists are trying to breed a better whitebark pine.
The whitebark specializes in bad soil and high altitudes.
Elana Thomas works at Crater Lake National Park. She points to a young tree that was buried under 13 feet of snow.
“they take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’ and giving to whatever ecosystem they exist in.”
Thomas says the whitebark pine is a pioneer. It may have been one of first tree species to take root on the rim of the spectacular caldera that formed when Mt. Mazama erupted. Its roots help trap moisture, making the environment more hospitable to other plans. Its seeds are an important food source for ground squirrels, birds, and bears.
But in mountain ranges across the west, the whitebark pine is struggling. Grey ghosts. That’s what Thomas calls the dying pines you see around the rim of Crater Lake. Mountain pine beetles have infested many of the trees. And in a stand of young, healthy looking pines Thomas points out a slower killer at work: a fungus called blister rust.
“This is completely dead from the canker on up so this tree has no chance of creating any cones as it gets older.”
Blister rust arrived on the west coast in 1910, hidden in a shipment of seedlings sent from Europe to a Vancouver, B.C. nursery. Whitebark pines are highly susceptible to the disease. Spots appear on the needles and then the disease spreads to the trunk, ultimately killing the tree.
But some whitepark pines appear to have genetic resistance, confining the disease to their needles which can drop off and re-grow.
Biologists at the Dorena Genetic Resource Center have tested hundreds of pine cones from Crater Lake and Mt. Rainier and are cultivating resistant seedlings. This fall they plan to plant four hundred of the disease-resistant whitebark pines.
Staff at Crater Lake National Park are also trying to protect some of the park’s most important pines from beetle attack. They staple packets of a synthetic compound called Verbonen to the trees. The Verbonen mimics a pine beetle pheromone, sending a message to the beetles that the tree has already been colonized and should be left alone. Elena Thomas says the Verbonen is effective about 50 percent of the time.
A few weeks ago, Thomas visited a tree that was the parent of many of the blister-rust resistant seedlings she will help plant this fall.
“I found it was dying from the mountain pine beetle. And I cried. I know its not very professional, but it’s like loosing a dear friend.”
Still, Thomas says she is hopeful that some of Crater Lake’s whitebark pines will survive.
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
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