Reed Magazine August 2005
Tough Nut to Crack
bitterroot image

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) was discovered by Lewis and named for him by the expedition’s official botanist, Frederick Pursh. This was an important food plant for Indians and for Lewis and Clark, remarkable in that it grows only in the harshest, driest sites, and is considered the flagship plant of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Photo by Keith Karoly.

“It’s a complex relationship,” says Ronald Lanner, a retired forest biology professor from Utah State University and author of Made For Each Other: A Symbiosis of Birds and Pines. “It really gets your blood up when you’re up there in the mountains on a beautiful day in the fall and you watch these beautiful birds squeaking, landing in the tree tops, flying off with seeds in their pouches. It’s really exciting—it’s one of nature’s really great shows in this part of the country.”

Yet an exotic disease now threatens this long marriage. White pine blister rust, a fungus introduced by humans in the 1920s, is spreading. Since 1937, it has infected between 52 and 100 percent of the North Cascade’s whitebark pine and scientists report that blister rust is likely to wipe out additional infected stands throughout the west.

No one has conducted any long-term studies on how this will affect the nutcracker but according to the book Birds of North America, this major reduction of high elevation habitat due to the rust may lead to smaller populations. While the birds are likely to adapt by heading to lower elevations to feed on the large seeds of the Douglas fir or the ponderosa pine, this magnifies the whitebark pine’s predicament.

In response, academics and public land managers are attempting to brace against this tide of demise. Since 2001, the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation has attracted funding from federal agencies and private sources for restoration projects on public lands. Now, over the next two years in both the Clearwater and Flathead National Forests, researchers will identify a few healthy trees and then climb as high as 50 feet to put wire mesh around the tree’s cones. Based on a reclamation effort in Glacier National Park, after the seeds become ripe, they will re-climb the pine, harvest the cones and then grow the seeds in a nursery for three years. Managers will then replant the young trees in areas where they hope the Clark’s Nutcrackers will find them and do the remainder of the work of replanting for them.

“We have a tough set of challenges ahead of us but we think our restoration strategies give the pine a chance,” says Diana Tomback, a Clark’s Nutcracker expert and director of the foundation, based at the University of Colorado at Denver. “It’s a beautiful tree; it looks like a survivor and it has been a survivor at the highest elevations. But the nutcracker keeps it going, it’s the key and we need to start paying attention to nutcrackers as well. We need more data.”

tough nut imagetough nut imageThe organization developed a website and conducts workshops to teach federal employees and the general public how to identify and monitor blister rust. Through such education and dialogue, Tomback also aims to bolster more research of the Clark’s Nutcracker.

For Reed professor Dalton, the story of the Clark’s Nutcracker and the pine spins a sustained thread back to the days of Lewis and Clark and the awe that the explorers felt for the western ecosystem.

“We shouldn’t be blind to the incredible biological richness they saw because we still have it, but we need to be careful stewards and to understand how our activities can whack these systems really hard,” says Dalton. “In this case, our actions have seriously jeopardized not just the pines but the birds and the whole ecosystem as well.”

Both Dalton’s book and the foundation’s work aim to amplify the beseeching cry of the Clark’s Nutcracker far beyond the mountain highlands down into the peopled valleys below, spreading the word about the remarkable relationship now at stake.

Rebecca Clarren’s previous article Feeling the Heat was in the May 2005 issue.

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