Forest Service orchard aims to protect and restore whitebark pine
About 15 miles up a dirt road into the Little Bear drainage, at an elevation of 8,300 feet lies a five-acre orchard of whitebark pine seedlings. I followed forestry technician Clay Demastus to get there.
But they're no ordinary whitebark pine seedlings. They come from cones resistant to a non-native infection threatening the species- white pine blister rust.
White Pine Blister Rust infects trees through the needles and then works its way through the tree, forming cankers, which eventually kills the tree.
"You kind of have the pine beetle hitting the mature trees. You have the blister rust hitting more of the younger generation and so, they're kind of getting it from both ends," says Demastus.
Demastus tells me the combination of blister rust, pine beetles and wildfire suppression has meant a dramatic decline in whitebark pine populations over the last 20 years.
"Whitebark pine habitats aren't seeing fire as often as they have in the past and, because of that, species such as Engelmann spruce and Subalpine fir are encroaching upon whitebark pine habitat," explains Demastus.
With any luck, cones from these seedlings or grafts - created from more mature blister rust resistant whitebark pine and potted rootstock- will be used to restore forests in the Greater Yellowstone Area.
"I like to think of it like an apple orchard. You have these little trees we won't allow to get too awfully large and you can go out and collect their cones, much like you would apples off an apple tree," Demastus says.
There are 200 of these whitebark pine grafts within the orchard's fence. With every pink marker, there are two whitebark grafts. That's in case one dies. Alongside the grafts are old stumps and logs to protect the tree from the hottest part of the day and to keep in moisture when it snows.
Demastus prepares to water the hundreds of seedlings in the holding area. The Forest Service will use these trees if the ones inside the fence die. Organizers say there's a total of 440 seedlings in the entire orchard.
"We can just have this orchard full of white pine blister rust resistant seedlings and we can collect their offspring and grow them up and plant them back out in areas that are in need of restoration," Demastus tells me.
Desmastus says the small trees are already starting to produce pollen cones and, hopefully, female cones will emerge within a year.
Eventually, folks with the Forest Service hope to have trees spread out every 20 feet, at each orange marker. Even so, leaders of the orchard project say it will take 900 acres to counteract the current decline of whitebark pine.