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Nevada conservation group works to preserve tree species critical to Western habitats

A woman is looking at a pine cone in one hand while holding a laptop in the other. A man with a camera around his neck is in the background. They’re surrounded by tall trees.
Courtesy of Megan Tait
BLM official Kristin Ross (right) studies a Whitebark Pine cone in the Pine Forest Wilderness in northern Nevada on Sept. 30, 2023. Pictured in the background is Jeff Locke, a volunteer with Friends of Nevada Wilderness.

There are dozens of conservation groups across the Mountain West working to protect the waters, lands and wildlife that make up the region. That includes a nonprofit in Nevada that is helping preserve an important tree species that’s increasingly threatened by climate change.

On a Thursday morning inside a warehouse in Sparks, members of Friends of Nevada Wilderness loaded pickup trucks with equipment and supplies, ranging from shovels and picks to ice chests and coffee.

“Coffee is a main part of our trips,” said Meg Tait, the group’s stewardship coordinator, who knows how to recruit eco-conscious volunteers. “We definitely sell how much food we provide everyone and how much coffee we provide as a main selling point, for sure. Apart from being out in this beautiful area.”

The end of a pine tree branch wrapped in a small cage. In the background are rolling green mountains.
Courtesy of Megan Tait
A small collection cage wrapped around a Whitebark Pine branch in the Pahute Peak Wilderness in Nevada.

Tait and her team were preparing for a full day of driving and hiking north of Reno into the Pahute Peak and Pine Forest Wilderness areas.

The terrain is home to populations of Whitebark Pine – thick, ghostly gray trees that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. They stand in high elevations of the West, including parts of Nevada, California, Idaho and Wyoming. Their twisted branches create shade that helps slow snowmelt, extending stream flows into the summer months.

Seeds from Whitebark Pine are also a high-calorie food source for more than a dozen species – from birds to grizzly bears.

“It is considered a keystone species,” Tait said. “So, it’s really important to keep them in these ecosystems because they provide such great habitat.”

But that’s being threatened by human-caused climate change. Rising temperatures are causing beetle outbreaks, wildfires, and an invasive fungus called blister rust to wipe them out.

In fact, more than half of Whitebark stands in the West are dead. That’s according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which listed the species as threatened a year ago.

The Whitebark Pines far north of Reno might be outliers.

“We believe that these two Whitebark Pine areas that are so remote are isolated enough that they aren’t being impacted by this,” said Tait, who is leading a mission to help find out.

Over the summer, the conservation group put small cages over some of the pine cones on dozens of trees to protect them from birds. Months later, they were going back to collect the developed seeds. Upon return, they’ll hand them off to their federal partner on the project, the Bureau of Land Management.

Two members of the Bureau of Land Management are observing a Whitebark Pine tree high up in a wilderness area. A leashed dog is standing next to the tree.
Courtesy of Megan Tait
BLM officials Michael McCampbell (left) and Cecelia Amato record data on the cages placed around a Whitebark Pine in the Pahute Peak Wilderness in Nevada.

Kristin Ross, a natural resources specialist with the BLM office in Winnemucca, said the agency will use the seeds for genetic research, and more.

“To create a stock of seeds to replant to grow seedlings from in the future,” Ross said. “If [Whitebark Pine] stands are damaged by fire or there’s huge mortality, being able to grow seedlings out and replace those lost trees.”

Help from Friends of Nevada Wilderness allows the agency to not only store more seeds but also study the threatened species from a broader area, said Michael McCampbell, also a natural resources specialist with the BLM office in Winnemucca.

“We don’t have dedicated forestry staff to go out and do this kind of thing,” McCampbell said. “So, being able to bring in Friends of Nevada Wilderness with their volunteers really made a big impact.”

He added that the conservation group’s outreach about its efforts spreads awareness about the state’s threatened species and ecosystems.

That’s what led Jeff Lock to start volunteering with Friends of Nevada Wilderness seven years ago.

“I just started really looking at things that are much larger than myself,” Lock said as he helped the team pack for the trip to the Whitebark Pines. “I’ve always kind of been a nature guy since I was young. And I just decided I would be more of a participant.”

Every year, the conservation group relies on a pool of dozens of volunteers in northern and southern Nevada for projects across the state. To date, the group has helped protect more than 3 million acres of wilderness.

A panoramic image of a mountainous wilderness on a partly cloudy day. A group of people can be seen on the right side of the image.
Courtesy of Jeff Locke
BLM officials and Friends of Nevada Wilderness members collect data and coordinates for the cages placed on the Whitebark Pines in the Pahute Peak Wilderness area in Nevada.

Their work is more important than ever as drought, wildfires and invasive species increasingly impact Nevada’s waters and lands, said Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness.

“Intact landscapes are going to do more to counter climate change issues,” Netherton said. “So, we look at how we can connect wildlife corridors to other protected landscapes and find ways that we can help keep more of these landscapes from getting developed.”

That includes an effort to conserve nearly 1 million acres of wide open landscape in Washoe County. The group worked with Democratic U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen and her staff to educate the public about the Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act.

The proposal aims to promote sustainable growth and economic development while supporting tribal communities and preserving public lands across Washoe County.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.