In Montana, a Tribally Led Effort to Restore the Whitebark Pine


Across the North American West, giant, ancient, gnarled whitebark pines grow along mountain ridges where practically no other tree can survive. Although these trees have been known to thrive for hundreds or even a thousand years, they have faced an accelerated decline for nearly a century. In fact, across much of the northwest, dead whitebark pines outnumber live ones. According to a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, the tree’s population has declined by up to 90 percent in certain areas, including on the lands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The whitebark pines play a considerable role in the region: They are a keystone species in high-elevation ecosystems. Over 100 species rely on the tree for food, shelter, and the habitat it provides, including squirrels, grizzly bears, and birds like the well-known Clark’s Nutcracker. The trees also contribute to ecosystem stability by preventing soil erosion and regulating water flow.

Across much of the northwest, dead whitebark pines outnumber live ones.

Maintaining the trees, then, is vital. And on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana, which contains some 110,000 acres of whitebark pine habitat, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, known as CSKT, are fighting to protect and restore this iconic and ecologically important species, ensuring its survival for future generations.

The epicenter of the decline in northern Montana, according to Diana Tomback, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Colorado, Denver, includes part of the Flathead Indian Reservation. “That area has the highest blister rust infection rates and mortality of any other part of whitebark pine’s range.”

White pine blister rust, an invasive fungus brought over from Europe in the early 20th century, is one of the main reasons for the whitebark pine’s steep decline. The rust causes cankers that disrupt the flow of water and nutrients within the tree, killing it. Another threat, infestations of mountain pine beetles, have been on the rise — a trend that is influenced by increasing temperatures. Mountain pine beetles used to be limited to lower elevations, but a warmer climate has allowed them to climb up to the whitebark pine’s habitat.

Salish tree climber Kelan Couture prepares to ascend a whitebark pine tree on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are working towards cultivating and planting 187,000 whitebark pine trees in the region, a process that starts by climbing trees to cage and later collect their cones.

The tree’s extinction would have far-reaching impacts beyond the mountainous environments it inhabits. The CSKT consider the tree a cultural resource necessary for stories, language, and food. The Salish word for whitebark pine is sč̓iłpálqʷ, pronounced schee-pahlkw. The tree’s seeds, which are large and packed with nutrients, were a first food for the CSKT, prior to the arrival of Europeans. A Salish story about the tree describes the Clark’s nutcracker as the Creator’s answer to the tree’s inability to disperse its seeds naturally.

“Clark’s nutcracker has been doing his job for how long now? He’s still doing his job and keeping up with it. But now he needs a helping hand,” said ShiNaasha Pete, lead reforestation forester for the Tribes. “He needs a hand. He needs our help. And that’s why we are here.”

Pete is an integral part of the initiative to reintroduce whitebark pine on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The ecological effects of losing whitebark pine are known, she said, but the cultural impacts are also important to consider. “You’re going to lose the word ‘whitebark pine.’ You’re going to lose the story of Clark’s nutcracker going to whitebark pine and helping it.”

“The storytelling of whitebark pine, ” she added, “has just been coming back since we started this project,” explaining that as the trees declined, the stories slipped from the collective memory, and with the restoration project, elders are remembering and sharing stories of the tree again.

ShiNaasha Pete smiles in front of rows of young pine trees at a greenhouse run by CSKT’s Department of Forestry. “The storytelling of whitebark pine, ” Pete said, “has just been coming back since we started this project.”

The restoration process begins with foresters like Pete identifying trees exhibiting signs of genetic resistance to blister rust. Given the high mortality rates in the area, Pete said that spotting trees with potential resistance is as straightforward as locating a live tree amid a stand of ailing whitebarks. Tree climbers will then climb to the tops of those trees, considered “plush trees,” to cage the cones for future seed collection. After seed collection, greenhouse workers nurture the growing plants for two years until the saplings are ready for outdoor planting, which occurs in the spring and fall.

The Tribes are working towards cultivating and planting 187,000 whitebark pine trees within the Flathead Indian Reservation. In November 2023, the CSKT received a nearly $3.5 million grant through the America the Beautiful Challenge for their work, which will help support various ecological initiatives, such as whitebark pine restoration and the development of a skilled conservation workforce.

The CSKT was one of the first tribal governments in the country to develop a climate change action plan. Protecting the threatened tree has been an essential component of that plan since the beginning. The Tribes see the tree’s survival as necessary for both the ecosystem and their culture. That culture, after all, depends on the ecosystem. And vice versa, Pete noted: “We take care of the trees because they take care of us.”

After being collected by ShiNaasha Pete’s team as just seeds from a cone, undergoing years of inoculation and genetic testing for resistance to white pine blister rust, and spending time being nurtured in a greenhouse, this newly planted whitebark pine stands on the Flathead Indian Reservation in July 2022.
ShiNaasha Pete, the lead reforestation forester for the CSKT Forestry Department, points to a whitebark pine tree infected with blister rust, an invasive fungus that slowly kills mature five needle pine trees. White pine blister rust is a disease caused by the pathogen Cronartium Ribicola and it affects all North American white pine trees.
White pine blister rust has a complicated life cycle that consists of five different spore types and involves at least two different host species: pine trees and an alternate plant. Shrubs such as currant and gooseberry usually act as this alternate host, allowing the fungus to produce and disperse basidiospores, which can infect nearby five needle pine trees.
A student raises their hand to ask Pete a question during her presentation at an annual river honoring celebration. “I’m planting these trees for you and your children,” Pete said. “Because I know I won’t be around to see them grow.”
During the river honoring, Pete and other CSKT forestry workers talk to children about their work. The Tribes see the threatened whitebark pine tree as a cultural resource, without which elements of their heritage would be lost.
Using paper and digital maps, Pete locates potential sites for reforestation. She often works alone but with help from the America the Beautiful Challenge grant, she hopes to create a skilled workforce to assist her in the reforestation project.
Pete takes transects of a previously logged plot of land, where she will assess the plant types, aspect, and fire history of the habitat to help identify areas for planting whitebark pine trees. The trees require a high elevation, ample sunlight, and minimal competition, and Pete noted that two years after a burn is the optimal time for planting in the newly nutrient-rich soil.
Pete points to an area zoned for reforestation on a map of the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Rows of burnt lodgepole pine trees on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Salish tree climber Kelan Couture ascends a whitebark pine tree estimated to be 500 years old to collect cones for the CSKT seed bank. White bark pine cones grow near the tops of trees, typically in the upper branches.
After identifying a tree displaying potential resistance to white pine blister rust, climbers like Couture will scale the tree to cage some of the cones for later collection. The cages prevent animals from harvesting all of the cones.
Whitebark pine tree cones are very hard and do not naturally disperse their seeds. Instead, these trees rely on animals, particularly Clark’s nutcrackers, to do so. The birds extract the seeds from the cones and store them in the ground as a food reserve, eventually leading to the germination of new trees. This symbiotic relationship is crucial for the regeneration and survival of whitebark pine forests.
After whitebark pine seeds are collected, they are sent to a Coeur d’Alene nursery to be tested for genetic resistance to white pine blister rust. This involves repeatedly exposing the seedlings to the fungus to assess their resistance. Genetic testing at the Coeur d’Alene nursery is currently on hold after the in-house geneticist retired.
Pete hopes to eventually learn how to do the genetic testing of whitebark pine seeds in-house. By identifying and cultivating resistant individuals, foresters aim to enhance the resilience of future whitebark pine populations, contributing to the long-term health and sustainability of this critical species.
Rows of recently sprouted pine trees at the Flathead Indian Reservation’s greenhouse, run by CSKT’s Department of Forestry. The Tribes hope to plant 187,000 blister rust-resistant whitebark pine seedlings across the Reservation.
Two-year-old whitebark pine trees at the Flathead Indian Reservation’s greenhouse. These plants have been kept indoors for two years before the forestry team could plant them in the mountains.
Six-year-old whitebark pine trees, ready for planting, are loaded in the back of Pete’s truck. These young trees are well-suited for areas that have recently experienced a fire, due to the reduced competition from faster-growing species that create open, sunny conditions.
Pete uses a pickaxe to dig a hole in preparation to plant whitebark pine trees. The work is physically demanding — many forestry departments across the country have teams of planters working together to dig holes and plant yearling trees. “I am out here helping restore this species and the ecology to help restore and preserve a culture,” Pete said.

Sarah Mosquera is a freelance photojournalist based in Missoula, Montana. Her work mainly focuses on stories about environmental restoration projects led by Tribal nations.