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Effort begins to restore whitebark pine trees

May 1, 2012 - The Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. -- The U.S. Forest Service is attempting to grow whitebark pine that are resistant to blister rust as part of an effort to prevent the high-elevation tree from dying out in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Workers have created a 15-acre nursery in the mountains south of Bozeman where seedlings resistant to blister rust are being grown, and limbs from older trees will be grafted onto the young trees to speed up seed production.

"Hopefully, they will be producing cones in four years," said Jay Frederick, a wildlife biologist in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

He said it normally takes 30 to 50 years for the slow-growing whitebark pine to produce cones.

Grizzly bears depend on whitebark pine that produce high-protein nuts in the fall. The nuts allow bears to fatten up for hibernation. Besides bears, the tree is important to some 20 wildlife species and has been identified as a keystone species in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The fenced nursery is costing about $20,000 a year for the next five years, and officials are hoping the trees will by then be producing seeds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged the tree is threatened but didn't list it as an endangered species because of other species with higher priorities.

Reasons for the decline, officials said, vary from a lack of forest fires that allow other trees to take over typical whitebark habitat, warmer weather that results in less snowfall and an environment where pine beetles can be more successful. The whitebark pine population has declined by 90 percent in some portions of the Northern Rockies, and experts say it faces the possibility of extinction in 120 to 180 years.

To turn things around, the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee Whitebark Pine Subcommittee is regenerating trees from resistant seedlings as well as spraying trees with chemicals to ward off pine beetle attacks.

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