Magazine article American Forests

The Pine and the Nutcracker

Magazine article American Forests

The Pine and the Nutcracker

Article excerpt

Montana forester Lars Halstrom squints into the sun and eyes a pair of Clark's nutcrackers atop a whitebark pine tree high in the mountains of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

The birds are busy jackhammering through pitch-soaked pinecones, eating some of the meaty seeds, stashing some on the forest floor for later. That the nutcrackers are present means that the cones are ripe and that new whitebarks will grow, thanks to the birds' Johnny Appleseed-like habits.

But the hungry nutcrackers are unwelcome competition for Halstrom. He's searching for perfect cones as part of a first-ever genetic experiment aimed at saving the whitebarks from blister rust, a killer disease imported to this country.

The blister-rust fungus has been bringing slow death to whitebarks and other five-needle pines from British Columbia to Wyoming since it landed in Vancouver 81 years ago aboard a freighter full of French-grown pine. In northwestern Montana, the disease has killed 90 percent of whitebark stands, and biologists fear environmental side effects that include quickened snowpack melt and increased erosion.

Seedlings from 5,000 cones collected by Halstrom and others will be deliberately infected with blister rust, and the survivors cross-bred to produce disease-resistant trees. The first batch of super whitebarks could be ready for replanting in 25 years.

The experiment is a longterm gamble: The Forest Service has little experience in regenerating whitebarks, which take 75 to 100 years to mature. …

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