National Forest Foundation

Press & News

Whitebark Pine Habitat On Track For Restoration

Over the last two years, the Forest Service and a team of citizen scientists led by Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wildernesscollected data identifying the locations and condition of whitebark pine trees in the headwaters of Lightning Creek.

The National Forest Foundation provided support for this work through our Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences conservation effort. With the help of the data, the Idaho Panhandle National Forest is now preparing to conduct prescribed burning and thinning on 3,500 acres in the upper drainage to benefit whitebark pine.

Burning will be done mainly with helicopters, though there will likely be some hand ignition in some places. A history of fire suppression between the 1930s and the late 1980s, plus the additional stress of blister rust disease, has diminished the whitebark pine population. The project hopes to mimic once-natural fire to restore healthy conditions for the abundance of whitebark pine.

The Idaho Panhandle National Forest hosted a community meeting in mid-January in the town of Clark Fork, located at the mouth of the Lightning Creek watershed. At the meeting, residents asked the Forest Service to provide notice of when burning will occur, and asked about impacts on recreational trail use. Generally people have expressed support for the project.

The decline of whitebark pine has warranted its candidacy for listing as a threatened species with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Whitebark pine is regarded as a keystone or “foundation” species for its value in promoting biodiversity.

It grows at high elevations and is an important food source for Clark’s Nutcrackers, red squirrels, and black and grizzly bears. A Clark's Nutcracker can hide about 30,000 to 100,000 seeds each year in small, widely scattered caches, far more than they need to eat. Nutcrackers retrieve these seed caches during times of food scarcity and to feed their young. Cache sites are often where new growth and survival of seedlings occurs, contributing to forest regeneration. Red squirrels also feed on and collect pine seeds in middens, both bringing the grizzly and black bears their food from the tree-tops and concentrating it in easily-accessible caches.

Besides its habitat value, whitebark pine’s preference for the harsh, windy ridges enables these “dwarf forests” to accumulate and hold snow, resulting in higher snow packs and delayed run off. Slowing the spring melt plays an important ecological function for fish habitat in the creek far below and can moderate flooding events.

For more information about our Treasured Landscapes campaign efforts on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, click here.