The vanishing whitebark pine
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explores options for protecting this unique high-elevation species
If you're looking to find the tallest spot in Crater Lake National Park, you'll see some. Where you hear the call of a Clark's nutcracker, look around and you're likely to spot one. Hiking to timberline in the Cascade Range and this tree just might mark the spot.
That was the news this week when the federal government announced (in response to a 2008 petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council) that it would investigate whether the pine deserves to be place under the protections of the Endangered Species Act.
The whitebark pine has been under increasing duress as the effects of global climate change continue to mount. Invasive species and opportunistic disease have already eliminated some populations of the unique tree species and scientists worry that the problems could spread if federal action isn't taken.
One of the best spots in Oregon to find whitebark pine is in the greater Crater Lake area. Along the trail to the summit of Mt. Scott (the highest point in Crater Lake NP) several whitebark pines cling to the rocky soil. Oftentimes whitebark pines near timberline are called "krummholz." Trees are described this way when wind stunts their growth and flattens out their branch pattern.
Along with the Clark's nutcracker, several other species of bird rely on whitebark pine for nesting and seeds. Bigger animals take advantage of the whitebark's pinecones as well. Grizzlies and black bears have been known to raid squirrel-cached seeds for a pre-hibernation food source.
It will be interesting to see how the USFWS goes about determining how endangered the tree is, and perhaps even more interesting to see what their plan of action is for counteracting the threat.
One way to protect the tree and its surrounding ecology from encroachment by development is Oregon Wild's Crater Lake Wilderness proposal. Read more about it here.