Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering the whitebark pine for federal protection, scientists and advocates worry that the protections may not come soon enough for the rapidly disappearing species.
"The mortality is absolutely unbelievable," said Ketchum resident Charlie Webster, founder of the Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project. "You can't even believe how many are gone. There are just very, very few left."
The devastation, which Webster says has claimed nearly 90 percent of the historical population of whitebarks in the Sawtooth National Forest, is mostly due to the mountain pine beetle, which Webster credits with causing the unraveling of a mountain ecosystem.
"The ramifications for wildlife and hunting are just horrendous," he said. "The whitebark is one of the two or three most important species in the entire forest."
The mountain pine beetle has attacked whitebark pines throughout the Rocky Mountains. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been petitioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council to list the pine under the federal Endangered Species Act. This month, the service began a 12-month status review to determine whether the species is sufficiently threatened to warrant listing.
The whitebark pine technically does not have any species that rely solely on it for survival. However, the pine nuts the trees produce are an important source of fat and protein in the backcountry, providing sustenance for bears preparing for hibernation.
The Clark's nutcracker, a bird species often seen in upper-elevation forests, also depends on the seeds and is largely responsible for their dispersal, as the seeds are wingless and require outside help to scatter.
There are several operations underway to aid whitebark recovery, but progress is slow and hard to track.
Robin Garwood, wildlife biologist for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, said she hopes a prescribed burn designed to help the whitebarks will begin as early as next week in the Sawtooth Valley five miles southeast of Smiley Creek. Burns, she said, reduce competition with the pines and help clear the way for seedlings.
"We're choosing areas that are currently composed of subalpine fir and some lodgepole pine," Garwood said, referring to two of the whitebarks' main competitors.
One of the most common efforts to protect the whitebarks is the use of verbenone pouches. These pouches, which are stapled to the tree trunks, emit a pheromone that tricks the mountain pine beetles into thinking the tree is already full of beetles. The beetles will then attempt to feed elsewhere.
"Basically, what we're doing is just placing the pheromone packets on trees that look like they are healthy, with the hopes that it will help them survive," Webster said.
But the pouches are not always reliable and, Webster said, beetle flights have been erratic recently. Beetles are either arriving at the trees too early, before the pouches are installed, or too late, when the potency of the pheromone has been depleted.
"We are seeing a significant mortality in protected trees," Webster said.
Other efforts to help the trees recover are underway, including a seedling project meant to reestablish the whitebark population in the area burned by the Valley Road Fire in the White Cloud Mountains in 2005. Garwood, who is overseeing this project, said the Forest Service put out a contract to collect seed last year, and the seedlings could be ready for planting as early as 2012.
Webster said he is not optimistic about this plan for recovery. Whitebarks are some of the oldest living things in Idaho, and seedlings must mature for 60 years before producing a single cone.
"It's a good idea," Webster said, "but the thing of it is that the environments are totally disrupted and the seedlings take forever before they start to come back and produce a whitebark habitat."
Would listing the whitebark pines under the Endangered Species Act help recovery? Maybe, said Garwood.
"I think there are enough threats to this tree that [listing] is probably something that should happen," Garwood said.
A listing would focus recovery efforts on whitebarks, Garwood said, which would be the first tree listed under the act.
"Often, some funding comes with that, or at least the opportunity for recovery projects comes with that," Garwood said.
Lack of funding is a main obstacle to recovery, according to Webster, who says that surefire measures to protect the trees are costly.
"The only way to really protect these trees is by spraying them with carbonyl (a pesticide)," he said. "That's really expensive, and you have to have all the gear, but it does work."
Garwood warns that listing under the act could limit some recovery efforts such as the prescribed burns, which potentially may kill some trees. Still, Webster maintains that the funding that listing could provide is required to make any sort of recovery possible.
"If you really wanted to recover these whitebarks, you could do it," Webster said. "But we're talking about millions and millions of dollars."
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org