Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation (WPEF)

We are a science-based non-profit dedicated to counteracting the decline of whitebark pine and enhancing knowledge about the value of its ecosystems.


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Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation
PO Box 17943
Missoula, Montana 59808

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Way Back Whitebark

The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation was established as a nonprofit organization in 2001. However, some of you may not realize that we have been publishing Nutcracker Notes for over 25 years! The first issue of Nutcracker Notes was published in April of 1993, with Bob Keane as editor. Bob still edits the journal today, but Steve Arno also served as editor for many years in between that first issue and today. Several of the other authors in that first issue are still involved as board members of the WPEF today as well.

You’ll have to search for the tiny, though creative, Clark’s nutcracker illustration on the cover of issue #1. Though the nutcracker illustration was much improved on the cover of the second issue, we think the journal has come a long way to it’s current version that is skillfully laid out for us twice a year by JoAnn Grant! In celebration of the long history of Nutcracker Notes, we will occasionally be featuring articles from the early years of the journal that we are referring to as, Way Back Whitebark.

Prescribed burning in whitebark pine — The Wheeler Creek prescribed burning project on the Flathead National Forest


Wally Bennett and Dave Bunnell, Flathead National Forest

Date of Publication: April 1, 1993


BACKGROUND:  Project identification and planning efforts began in 1986. Two separate areas in the Wheeler creek drainage were identified by Hungry Horse District Biologist Henry Rivera as areas where a prescribed fire could improve grizzly bear habitat.  Primary prescribed fire objectives included 1) improvement of shrub and forb forage production, and especially in avalanche chutes use by bears in early spring; 2) reduction of conifer encroachment; and 3) reduction of fuel accumulation.  There was also a seldom used, but appropriate, secondary objective of reintroducing fire as a disturbance into the ecosystem. The two areas encompassed approximately 300 acres and were located mid-slope on a southerly aspect above 5000 feet.


Flathead National Forest Fire Management staff determined in the spring of1988 that it would be necessary to burn the areas in the fall to maximize the chances of meeting the objectives and reducing long-term risk.  It was decided the ridge above the two areas would be used to initiate ignition so control problems would be minimized.  Whitebark Pine was the dominant overstory species in the upper 1/3 of the slope.  Direct firing through this type was planned and the two targeted areas were increased in size to 400 and 200 acres to include the whitebark component.


PROJECT IMPLEMENTATION:  On October 13th, 1988 the decision to burn was made. The National Weather Service was forecasting a wet system to hit the area on the morning of October 14th. Temperatures, humidities, fuel moistures and winds were also in prescription. The only unknown was the effects of the drought conditions through the 1988 season to the live fuel moistures.  Ignition was accomplished with the use of a helitorch. Fire intensities and flame lengths were the highest ever observed by Fire Management Officer Dave Bunnell on a project of this type with flame lengths of 150-200 feet. The gelled gasoline used for ignition typically falls through tree crowns to start ground fires, but the dry conditions caused the gel to ignite the crowns of the whitebark pine before reaching the ground.


CONCLUSIONS: This prescribed burn produced a fire intensity that is rated at the upper end of the scale.  It approached any maximum observed intensity level recorded in this fuel type.  It may serve as an upper level to compare future, less intense, applications.  The fire behavior exhibited was by far more extreme due to the drought-like conditions of 1988 than would be typical in a wildfire in August of a normal or average year. Hopefully, monitoring of the area will answer the question of whether or not the prescribed burn was too intense.  Currently this area appears to be getting heavy grizzly bear use during spring and summer.  The area will continue to be monitored to assess the success of this exciting burn.


Two subsequent grizzly bear prescribed burns with similar objectives have occurred on the district since the fall of 1988. One was accomplished in the spring of 1992 and one in the fall of 1992. Both were conducted in whitebark pine forests. In both cases, the gelled fuel ignited some tree canopies but fire coverage on the ground was marginal.  These burns may represent the lower end of prescribed fire applications.  Resulting monitoring data may prove very different from the Wheeler Creek treatment.  Although whitebark pine regeneration was not a primary objective, the effects of these treatments on whitebark pine establishment success will provide useful data for improving future burning prescriptions that include whitebark pine regeneration as an objective.