This summer, high in the mountains of central Idaho, ICL Wilderness Stewards and staff partnered with the National Forest Foundation, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management to cache nearly 10,000 whitebark pine seeds at central Idaho’s highest elevation road that adventurers can drive — Railroad Ridge. To reach Railroad Ridge, one must drive a 4-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle to the ridge at over 10,400 feet.
The area is rich in mountain vistas, Idaho mining history, and critical habitat for wildlife. At first glance, one may also think that the area’s population of old growth whitebark pine trees is also thriving in the area, but the truth is, these trees lining the rocky road are in trouble.
Protecting the pines
Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is a slow-growing, long-lived, five needle tree that grows throughout the Northern Rockies of the United States, the Southern Rockies of Canada, the Cascades, and the Sierra Nevada. Found only between 6,000 and 12,000 feet in elevation, these trees provide irreplaceable support for the land, water, and wildlife in these fragile environments. Their deep roots help stabilize the soil while their seeds provide life and sustenance for at least 13 species of birds, eight species of mammals, and were once a primary food source for indigenous Tribes in the region.
Today, the whitebark pine’s survival as a species is threatened by climate change, bark beetle outbreaks, and a fungal disease called white pine blister rust. These factors led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to publish a proposed rule in December 2020 (85 FR 77408) listing whitebark pine as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Although the mortality rate for the tree is still concerning, there is still hope for these trees and the species that depend on them through collaborative efforts such as the event ICL participated in this summer.
A story in the seeds
One particular species that relies on this tree is a true bird of the mountain, the Clark’s Nutcracker. These birds and whitebark pines have created a coevolved mutualism, meaning that both species have interacted in ways that have influenced the other species’ evolution over time. While the nutcrackers rely heavily on the food and shelter whitebark pines provide, the trees rely on the birds to help germinate their seeds.
Whitebark pine cones don’t open on their own, making seed distribution impossible – so the trees rely on the birds for seed dispersal. These medium-sized, gray and black Corvidae spend their days prying open whitebark pine cones to eat the seeds and cache others for future consumption. Although remarkable numbers of seeds are later unearthed and consumed by the nutcrackers, a significant amount remain in the soil where they later grow as the next generation of whitebark pine. These birds are true conservationists, whether they know it or not.
From feathers to fingers – how humans are securing a future for the whitebark pine
Between 2015 and 2019, land management agencies planted 9,770 two-year-old whitebark pine seedlings in microsites such as stumps, rocks, logs, and areas where snow would be less impactful – allowing for the rejuvenation of whitebark pines to begin. But for the volunteer work that ICL participated in, we took a page out of our feathered friend’s book.
As land management agencies and nonprofits have monitored the whitebark pine situation at Railroad Ridge, they have collected seeds to begin a direct seeding approach to saving the trees – a technique that mimics Clark’s nutcracker caches.
During this summer’s day of mimicking Clark’s nutcrackers, each group received a large amount of whitebark pine seeds that had been cold stratified for 90 days and sacrificed at Lucky Peak Nursery to prepared for germination. Each group was given a number of seeds and was instructed to embrace their inner Clark’s nutcracker – planting their seeds 1 inch deep in the soil around stumps, rocks, decaying trees, and the base of trees as if they were caching them for later.
We quickly began to meander through the old-growth whitebark pines, caching seeds while the distinctive calls of Clark’s nutcrackers filled the landscape. The natural beauty of the area was breathtaking, and served as a lovely backdrop for the few hours it took to cache all of the seeds.
The project will be regularly monitored by land management agencies and if successful, future generations of adventurers will have the opportunity to embrace these slow-growth towering trees while watching the trees’ special relationship with the Clark’s nutcrackers.
The day is one that will remain in my memory, as collaboration and shared love for the outdoors brought many different stakeholders together to help protect this critical ecosystem.