The battle to save whitebark pines is making progress, U.S. Forest Service officials said this week.
The whitebark pine is a subalpine tree that has been decimated by the mountain pine beetle.
The whitebark was once prolific in the area, but an increase in beetle population has turned the once-stable species into one that has been listed as warranted for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
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.
Robin Garwood, wildlife biologist with the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, said the pouches have been remarkably effective this year in preserving whitebark stands throughout the region.
"Our experience has been [the success rate] is really, really high," she said. "Maybe 95 percent effective. Just with this one year, we only had a few trees that had been pouched that had been hit."
A similar species is also being attacked by the beetles, said Kurt Nelson, Ketchum District Ranger for the agency. Called the limber pine, the tree is similar to the whitebark but grows at lower elevations and has different-shaped cones.
"At first glance, when you're looking at these trees that are blinking out, you think they are all whitebark," he said. "We're discovering we have more limber pine stands than we thought."
One major stand is near upper Trail Creek, Nelson said. Possibly those stands won't last long, however, if the beetle population remains high. Nelson said the mountain pine beetles are attacking those trees as well, but verbenone pouches are proving effective on both species of tree.
"It seems to be working," he said. "I haven't seen the results [but] it seems pretty promising."
The Forest Service is also going on the offense to save the trees, Garwood said. The service began collecting whitebark and limber seeds in 2009, contracting with helitack firefighting teams from the Salmon-Challis National Forest to jump into whitebark stands and place specially-designed cages around unripe cones.
The cones must be caged to protect the seeds from wildlife, Garwood said.
"[Clark's] Nutcrackers go after the seeds and harvest them," she said, adding that while the birds have an important role in naturally dispersing the seeds, the Forest Service collection can help regeneration occur more quickly.
The teams return a few months later to collect ripe cones and harvest seeds, which are planted in Forest Service nurseries in Lucky Peak and Coeur d'Alene.
Garwood said the seedlings would be planted in fire-damaged areas, or areas where the whitebark have been severely harmed by beetles. One of the first areas will be the site of the 2005 Valley Road fire, Garwood said, where a human-caused fire ripped through 40,000 acres in the White Cloud Mountains.
"We had a lot of whitebark pine burned up there," Garwood said.
The agency plans to begin rehabilitation plantings in 2013, but the areas will still be void of older cone-bearing trees for decades. Trees take 50 years to grow before producing cones and naturally regenerating, but Garwood said the rehabilitation is well worth the wait.
"You have to take the long view when it comes to trees," she said.
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Beetles on Baldy
Kurt Nelson, Ketchum district ranger, said this week that while results are preliminary, the MCH pheromone pellets dropped on Bald Mountain last season seem to be making headway against the Douglas fir beetle infestation.
"We haven't seen the report yet, but we had some very, very good results," he said.
MCH, short for methylcyclohexenone, is a pheromone naturally produced by the beetles to let other beetles know that there is no more room in a tree, thereby preventing overpopulation in a single tree. By replicating MCH and applying it to trees that have yet to be infested, the Forest Service hopes to trick beetles into staying away from certain areas.
Nelson said the Forest Service would continue to thin out the trees on the mountain and possibly drop MCH pellets next year, if funding is available.