Beetles put bite on Crater Lake pines

Park rangers work to protect trees left vulnerable by rust

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photoFILE - In this Sept. 8, 2009 file photo, U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Bill Gamble shows tunnels bored by mountain pine beetles in a tree on the shores of Diamond Lake, Ore. The latest periodic mountain pile beetle infestation is waning in Oregon, but not before becoming the biggest source of mortality for the signature tree at nearby Crater Lake National Park, the whitebark pine. (AP Photo/Jeff Barnard, File)

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photoFILE - This Oct. 2, 2012 photo provided Crater Lake National Park in Oregon shows a stand of dead whitebark pine in the park. The mountain pine beetle has supplanted an invasive fungus as the leading cause of mortality of the trees, which are a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Park botanist Jennifer Beck estimates as many as half the whitebark pine on the park are now dead. (AP Photo/Crater Lake National Park, Jennifer Beck)

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photoLee Juillerat /The Herald and News files A whitebark pine snag near the lodge at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- The latest mountain pine beetle infestation appears to be slowing down in Eastern Oregon, but not before becoming the leading killer of the signature tree of Crater Lake National Park -- the whitebark pine.

Park botanist Jennifer Beck says the beetle now kills more of the gnarled trees that grace the highest elevations of the park than an invasive fungus called white pine blister rust that also attacks them.

"The older trees they are attacking are centuries old," said Beck. "They are often the biggest cone producers. This impacts regeneration and probably some food for wildlife."

Countless park visitors have been told the story by rangers of how the whitebark pine depends on the Clark's nutcracker to regenerate. The bird opens the trees' cones to get the seeds, and buries them in underground caches for the future. But the birds often forget where they leave the seeds, which sprout before they are eaten.

Now Beck estimates as many as half of them are dead from the combined effects of the beetle and the fungus.

Wide swaths of lodgepole pine have also been turned from green to red by the insect. Park Superintendent Craig Ackerman says timber fallers are cutting dead trees around campgrounds, where they pose a safety hazard, but elsewhere in the park the infestation is considered part of the natural process.

The park is trying to protect whitebark pines by stapling to them a packet that emits an odor telling beetles that this tree is full, and they should find another to feed on.

Park personnel feel it is proper to take this unnatural step because the blister rust that makes the whitebark pine more vulnerable to beetle attack is not a native of North America, having come from Eurasia, Ackerman said.

As long as the dead trees have their needles, they are a fire hazard, but once the needles fall off after a couple of years, they are no more likely to burn than living trees, Ackerman said.

The whitebark pine is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found that it deserves protection, but the agency does not have the resources to deal with it right now.