By Lailani Upham
THREE LAKES PEAK – Northwest scientists were led up to Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal high elevation land in the Three Lakes Peak region this month to learn about the recent CSKT efforts to preserve Whitebark Pine trees habitat. Like the tribal people of the Flathead Reservation and tribal people across the nation, Whitebark Pine trees are fighting to stay in the ecosystem through incredible resistance to attacking elements.
The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation annual conference was held at Salish Kootenai College for the first time on September 13 -14. Nearly a dozen organizations and groups attended to hear about Whitebark Pine restoration work across the region from eachother and from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' efforts.
Whitebark Pine is a tree species that protects watersheds, regulates snowmelt runoff and its roots stabilise rocky and poorly developed soils, preventing soil erosion, according to the U.S. Forestry. For these reasons, Whitebark Pine is considered a bedrock species in these high mountain ecosystems.
The first day was packed with presentations from expert scientists and researchers in the Whitebark Pine restoration field. The second day was a day for the CSKT team made up of CSKT Forestry, CSKT Historic Preservation, and SKC Forestry Department to share their new work on Whitebark Pine restoration on tribal lands. The work was implemented in 2016 and so far the CSKT team has made large strides in identifying resistant Whitebark Pine areas, planting seedlings, and caging the cones.
Over 40 people traveled mostly by car to nearly 7,000 feet, parking at the foot of the trailhead that took them another mile or so to an ancient “ghost” Whitebark Pine tree, which was surrounded by acres of large ghost and living trees.
Tony Incashola, Jr. of CSKT Forestry told the visitors Three Lakes Peak is a primary seed zone for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. CSKT have three seed zone areas on the Flathead Reservation: South Fork, Boulder, and Three Lakes Peak. Incashola said they collected genetic material in 2016 from the zone areas and sent them off for genetic testing to detect drought and blister rust resistance. Blister rust is a fungus (Cronartium ribicola) that was transported through plants carried over by explorers in the 15th to the17th century during the western settlement of the Rocky Mountains It wiped out most of the Whitebark stands in the region according to a 1929 study by P.C. Spaulding called, “White pine blister rust. A comparison of European with North American conditions.”
“As long as we have enough of blister rust resistance we can use these individuals here that we collected from as part of our seed bank. With that we will make a high elevation seed orchard,” Incashola told them.
This Spring the CSKT Forestry team planted Whitebark Pine seeds in the South Fork area using a Flathead National Forest seed source for that area. “The reason why is to get genetic diversity in the area. And we know the seed source we got from FNF is rust resistant.” It was the first time Whitebark Pine seedlings have been planted on CSKT tribal lands.
The Three Lakes Peak area is unique because it has natural regeneration happening throughout the area said Incashola, Jr. He pointed out a ridge across the valley to a “ghost forest” of gigantic Whitebark Pine. It had been a community of the ancient trees for centuries.
“This area is a good candidate for having a rust resistant community. It is something we could use to repopulate other areas. And there is natural regeneration happening right here without any human involvement or restoration strategy being implemented,” said Incashola.
He believes it’s because of the high population of Clark’s Nutcracker birds and picas. “Between those two they are stashing caches (of seeds) and we’re getting regeneration happening,” Incashola said. “They stash them and forget about them and out pops a tree. It’s the natural process for regeneration. It’s a unique species. It’s not like a Pine, a Doug Fir, or a Larch; it can’t use wind dispersal or any other factor for regeneration it depends on the Clark Nutcracker to plant it in the ground,” he added.
A gigantic Whitebark Pine ghost tree known as the great-great grandparent, only yards away from where the group stopped, is estimated to be around 2,000 years old. Data is still being collected to find out exactly how old and how long it’s been dead. Its existence was the focus of the Saturday field trip hike.
Mike Durglo, CSKT Preservation director, told the guests his story of the ancient “ghost” Whitebark Pine. “This tree is special to me. My dad (Michael Durglo, Sr.) helped and supported us in our climate change work and was there for me. He passed away a three years ago,” Durglo told them. A year later after his father’s passing Durglo came up on the very trail using his dad’s walking stick, and it is when he saw the grandparent Whitebark Pine tree, though dead, had not succumbed to the decay of time.
Durglo said he knew it was a special tree the minute he touched it. “I felt that even before I came up here,” he said.
Enormous Whitebark Pine trees live above the ridge where the group sat. Incashola Jr. told the group those trees are around 500 years old.
Incashola told the group a 500-year-old Whitebark Pine tree named “tupyeʔ” by the CSKT Forestry team was surrounded by several individual Whitebark Pine trees dating back to 300 years. Incashola pointed to the forest of “ghosts” across the valley of peaks. “To see all the old ones still standing; it’s pretty crazy. Pretty good looking,” he said.
In the three years of Whitebark Pine restoration work CSKT Forestry team has caged over 50 individual trees in the area in the past two years. Caging is where cones are wrapped in protective mesh to safeguard ripening cones. “There are multiple age groups and cohorts, it’s a unique area,” Incashola told the group. “We are hoping the genetic testing come back and show us great resistance in here. Obviously it survived through our waves and current levels of blister rust so hopefully it’s good stock. And we can use this to replant the rest of our forest.”
ShiNaasha Pete, SKC Forestry intern, was hired on three years ago to get the data needed to get the work rolling. Most areas are hard to get to by vehicle and so this is where Pete comes in. She hikes into the backcountry for days looking for Whitebark Pine habitat.
Incashola said her work has helped get things done. “With our organization a lot people wear multiple hats and it’s hard to get it all done in a little time, especially in high country like this,” Incashola said. CSKT Forestry has worked with the Wilderness Society, Dreaming Tree Foundation, and partnered with Salish Kootenai College and CSKT Preservation. “We really tied our culture presence back into Whitebark Pine and showed our cultural significance of the plant species with Mike (Durglo, Jr.) and his work and with SKC interns, it’s been boots on the ground.”
So far with the extra help from interns a lot of mapping has been accomplished. “I think we now have a better product now of potential expected cone production areas and ShiNaasha is out ground trooping it. We are finding new communities where we didn’t know before – which is awesome. And we’re caging there now. So hopefully we will get more work done.”
Pete has been working with Rick Everett, SKC Forestry instructor, with Whitebark Pine for the last three years. She told the group she has a closeness to the particular area and knew it well, “I have a close tie with this place and I’m not quite sure why yet. I’ll figure it out as time goes,” she said.
Her team consists of a two more interns who hike through valleys and peaks collecting data. She calls herself and the team, “Data grunts.” The average climbs ranges from 5,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation in the roadless areas going for 10 miles a day. They look for mature trees, blister rust infected trees, or trees infected by beetles; record it; and bring it back to the data bank where it is used to figure out a preservation strategy.
Incashola Jr. told the group that he was always told, “The forest is part of us.” He said he was taught as a tribal people to take care of a tree or a species that is becoming extinct or endangered or having trouble in the ecosystem. “That’s significant to us to help to try to restore that,” he said. “If we lose that who knows what the consequences are going to be.”
The CSKT Forest plan and Tribes mission is to help preserve, protect and restore the land.