“The mortality is absolutely unbelievable,” said Ketchum resident Charlie Webster, founder of the Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project. “You can’t even believe how many are gone. There are just very, very few left.”
The devastation, which Webster says has claimed nearly 90 percent of the historical population of whitebarks in the Sawtooth National Forest, is mostly due to the mountain pine beetle, which Webster credits with causing the unraveling of a mountain ecosystem.
“The ramifications for wildlife and hunting are just horrendous,” he said. “The whitebark is one of the two or three most important species in the entire forest.”
The mountain pine beetle has attacked whitebark pines throughout the Rocky Mountains. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been petitioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council to list the pine under the federal Endangered Species Act. This month, the service began a 12-month status review to determine whether the species is sufficiently threatened to warrant listing.
The whitebark pine technically does not have any species that rely solely on it for survival. However, the pine nuts the trees produce are an important source of fat and protein in the backcountry, providing sustenance for bears preparing for hibernation.