Melissa Jenkins usually does not take photos while hiking in the Whitefish Range of Montana. Here, the whitebark pine she is working to restore has been so decimated by a fungus that gray skeletal ghost forests reign, haunting symbols of a once-widespread species. But last summer, she stopped to take a photo of the survivors flanking the tattered but defiant trail. “It was like walking through soldiers on guard even though they didn’t have much to give in battle,” she recalls. “Walking through the ghost forests is dark, because you can imagine what once was, and you don’t know if it still will.”
For 30 years, Jenkins worked to save these trees, which grow where no other tree dares. They grow in barren soils on exposed slopes, marking the treeline, and they provide habitat and fodder for birds and bear where there is nothing else. “It represents savagery. It represents my passion for the outdoors, ”Jenkins says. “It is such an important keystone species for high altitude ecosystems. Man introduced the blister rust that decimated this species, and I think it is our responsibility to try to help restore the species.
Jenkins is a founding member of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and she retired from the US Forest Service last summer. Retirement has changed little. She became a federal entrepreneur at the head of a restoration strategy for the Crown of the continent’s ecosystem, which covers 18 million acres straddling the continental divide in northern Montana and southern Canada.
Today there is no more dead whitebark pines in the United States than the living, according to the Forest Service. In some areas, including northwestern Montana, where Jenkins is based, up to 90% of the white bark has perished. In Canada, trees have been classified as endangered since 2012. They have fallen prey to the ravages of blister rust mountain pine beetle infection and infestation, exacerbated by climate change in recent decades.
The range of Whitebark Pine extends across northern British Columbia, southern northern Nevada, western Pacific Northwest, and eastern Wyoming, growing to 12,000 feet, their trunks often twisted by strong winds. They are a key species essential to healthy ecosystems. Their seeds rich in protein and calories (1 gram has between 5,000 and 7,700 calories) are an important food for over 100 species, including grizzly bears, birds and squirrels. They are among the first to regenerate after fires, a “feeder tree”, providing shade and shelter from the wind for smaller, slower growing species. And their canopy of candelabra slows down the snowmelt, helping to regulate runoff and alleviate spring flooding and summer drought, important for drinking and agricultural water supplies. Without a white bark, the West faces a more perilous future.
For a decade, environmental groups pushed unsuccessfully for whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis, to be protected under the United States Endangered Species Act. At the end of November, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to give it the status of threatened species. Jenkins and others working to resuscitate the species hope the new attention will boost funding for innovative responses: combining old-fashioned seed collection and grafting techniques with modern strategies to identify trees resistant to the fungus. , collect their seeds, then plant seedlings in places where they will thrive.
“This is one of the most rigorous and forward-thinking forest restoration efforts in the country. Geneticists, field biologists, field foresters and nursery staff are involved and thinking about what is needed, ”says Eric Sprague, vice-president of forest restoration for American forests, a non-profit organization that has partnered with the Forest Service and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation to help plant 700,000 trees to date.