Whitebark pine and the Sawtooths

The Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho encapsulates some of the most rugged, unmarked, and stunning wild country in the entire state. Perfectly enough, it is called the “crown jewel”. Throughout my internship here, I have been told continually how dire it is for me to visit this place before my chapter here closes. It is because of the numerous high alpine lakes, 50+ peaks over 10,000 ft, and the multiple wilderness areas that surround the forest. There is an abundance of wildlife, mature tree stands, alpine wildflowers, and solitude. The peaks are jagged and profound. The water is crystal blue. The high valleys are dotted with subalpine meadows and wetlands. I promise you, it is as dreamy as it sounds. With our primary work being for the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, we were floored when we were given the opportunity to head over to the Sawtooths to assist with whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) monitoring surveys. 

Looking directly into Strawberry Basin. To the right, notice the white mountain. One of many, these prominently white rocks compiled to form what we call, the White Clouds.

Whitebark pine is a species of interest due to the impacts of native mountain pine beetle and white pine blister rust. Both continue to successfully reproduce across western forests and cause decline in whitebark pine. Additionally, whitebark pine is experiencing regeneration challenges as continued fire exclusion limits seedling establishment and allows succession to shade-tolerant species. This species thrives in subalpine environments and co-exists with other dominant conifers such as: douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), engelmann spruce (Picea englemannii), subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). Not only do whitebark pines coexist with stunning conifers, they also have a close relationship with the Clark’s nutcracker. The nutcracker is an essential partner in the regeneration success of whitebark pine. These jay-sized, grey, black, and white birds favor using their broad beaks to remove seeds from pine cones and distribute them across the landscape. They will collect thousands of seeds and bury them in cache piles as far as 20 miles apart. This natural distribution of the seeds is hugely crucial to the species. If you are fascinated by these birds as much as I am, learn more from the Audobon at https://www.audubon.org/news/better-know-bird-clarks-nutcracker-and-its-obsessive-seed-hoarding.

Clark’s Nutcracker acquiring one of many seeds. Photo by Marshall Hedin.

The White Cloud Mountains continue to expand whitebark pine research. The monitoring surveys we completed were created to analyze how they regenerate post fire. In 2006, the Valley Road Fire burned nearly 40,000 acres in the White Cloud Mountain area. A substantial percentage of the fire occurred in prime whitebark pine habitat. The fire burned at low intensity and high intensity changing the entirety of the environment. Our survey focus was overall forest health and vegetation reestablishment. We visited over 20 plots in five different stands throughout the White Clouds, collecting data on a variety of components.

Some to note would be:

  • Tree status – dead, alive, or infected
  • What killed the tree 
  • Fire evidence
  • DBH and tree height
  • Number of overall conifer regeneration
  • Complete vegetation survey of each plot – forbs, graminoids, trees/shrubs
In the heart of one of our many plots. This is a mixture of subalpine fir and whitebark pine skeletons from a previous fire.

Each plot provided a different representation of how the forest can respond and how resilient it is to the impacts of wildfire. Here we were, thirteen years later, seeing thriving wildflower communities, tree regeneration, hearing the wolves cry, and elk bugle. Analyzing these snippets of the massive area we were in, provided us with a small window into just how adaptable forests are and how beneficial fire can be. It is important to note that we did find evidence of both mountain pine beetle kill and white pine blister rust, which was to be expected. Collecting this data will hopefully provide a continued baseline of what changes are occuring between each sampling year and will promote future management decisions. 

A moderately healthy whitebark pine stand. Photo by Olivia Turner.

Lastly, there is something oddly beautiful about being wrapped up inside of a 40,000 acre burn scar. You are completely exposed and can see each and every ridge around you. There is no hiding behind the skirt of subalpine fir or spying on a herd of elk (because they saw you miles and miles before you caught a glimpse of them). It is humbling. These four days flew by. We drove away with the understanding of how to properly conduct these surveys and have hopes to share the techniques with our forest, the Caribou-Targhee. 

Sunset over the Valley Road Fire burn scar.

Enjoy fall as it is fast approaching!

Claire Parsons

Caribou-Targhee National Forest, S.O.

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