Whitebark Pine Field Trip in the Mission Mountain Range

By Shawn Davis, Climate Change Intern, Blackfeet Environmental Office

Four of us Climate Change Interns took a field trip with Mike Durgalo, Jr., the Division of Environmental Protection Manager and Climate Change Planning Coordinator for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). The purpose of the trip was to educate us about whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) forests, and the threat this keystone species faces from climate change. Mr. Durgalo mentioned mountain pine beetles and how they are devastating the tribe’s pine forests, and, more notably, the whitebark pine population in the West.

Mr. Snow, a member of Mike’s team, demonstrated how the tribe is collecting whitebark pine cones. He explained the process of sending them to a lab for further studies. They collect the cones in hopes that they may produce more seeds for reproduction to ensure their survival and to also keep them safely guarded from the pine beetles.  Whitebark pine is especially important for grizzly bears as they utilize it as a high-calorie food source. Not only is this species essential for wildlife, but it has cultural, medicinal, and nutritional values for people in the Blackfoot Confederacy (for more information, read this by Kodi Jae Augare-Estey.)

During the field trip, we hiked to a high point in the Mission Mountains where we stood next to a 1000 year-old “skeleton tree”,  one of the oldest tree trunks remaining on the Flathead Reservation. Touching the tree made us feel a spiritual connection, and we understood more about why CSKT is working so hard to protect the species. Our hosts compared the resiliency of the species, which has endured fires, pine beetles, and other factors that threaten its survival, with the strength of native people. Just as native people were nearly wiped off the North American continent, through our resiliency, we have persevered and remain a strong people.

In conclusion, we would highly encourage another trip like this one in the future because this hike was not only very instructive to us, but it was an opportunity to set our minds with a perspective that allowed us to enjoy the natural beauty and experience it in a way that was very meaningful. It made us appreciate what our planet has given us whether it is on a peak in the Mission Mountains of the Flathead Reservation, or the beautiful glaciers in Glacier National Park.

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Photo by Termaine Edmo
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