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GALLATIN GATEWAY – High on a ridge above the Gallatin Valley, you can't see the forest but now you can see the trees. Hopefully, the forest will follow in another half century.

On Thursday, two forestry technicians inched their way through a clearing, depositing tiny whitebark pine seedlings in the pre-dug holes that formed a grid across the slope.

As thunderclouds swelled overhead, they tried not to rush, cutting away each plastic potting container to expose a seedling's roots, which they gingerly suspended in a hole while they filled in the dirt.

“The guys planting lodgepole pines plant around 1,000 an hour, but we plant about eight an hour. You have to be a lot more careful with them. They have a very sensitive root system,” said technician Jess Falvey.

Whitebark pines seedlings are not only more sensitive – they're a lot more valuable.

The seedlings in the Gallatin seed orchard and nearby test and holding pits could be a last hope for a pine species that is rapidly disappearing due to a combination of pests and climate change.

If they disappear, that's one less food source for grizzly bears, Clark's nutcracker and squirrels that depend on the high-fat seeds in the fall.

Over eons, whitebark pine trees have adapted to live in the high, cold environments of the Rocky Mountains. Although they take longer to grow and reproduce, their lofty habitat has allowed them to escape many of the parasites and herbivores that attack trees at lower elevations.

By the 1980s, that advantage started to diminish as blister rust, a European pine disease, finally made its way into the northern Rocky Mountains.

Shortly after blister rust started killing whitebark pine in the Great Yellowstone area, another threat arrived from the south in the form of the bark beetle, which swarmed farther north thanks to a warming climate.

Climate change not only enables bark beetle outbreaks but also stresses trees used to cooler temperatures.

“Mid-level lodgepoles can move up in elevation, but whitebark pine has nowhere to go,” Falvey said.

The triple threat has combined over the past 10 to 15 years to almost eliminate whitebark pine stands in 16 of 22 mountain ranges within the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Forest Service employees saw the disaster coming in the late '80s, but believed the species would be wiped out, unable to fight off the nonnative blister rust, Falvey said.

Then a study showed whitebark pine trees had more genetic variation than previously thought. In some stands, between 5 and 20 percent of trees were resistant to blister rust.

Hope began to glimmer.

“Five percent is better than zero percent,” Falvey said.

So, 14 years ago, the Forest Service started an intensive project to save the whitebark pine.

They started collecting seeds and pollen from whitebark pine trees that survived blister rust attacks throughout the Rocky Mountains and sent them to be raised at a Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, nursery.

Once the seedlings got big enough, they were exposed to blister-rust spores multiple times to be sure they could withstand the disease.

Resistant seedlings could survive, but it would be years before the trees were mature enough to start reproducing. That's too long to wait for a species on the verge of extinction.

To overcome the maturity delay, technicians cut branches from the parent trees, many of which are more than a century old, and grafted them onto the related seedlings.

“The seedlings think they're 100 years old and immediately start producing cones,” Falvey said, pointing to a marble-sized cone on one of the seedlings. “Bears aside, this is a cool project. If we're causing climate change, at least we're doing something to offset its effects.”

All that collecting, growing, testing and grafting doesn't come cheap. When the first grafted seedlings were planted in the seed orchard in Plains, Montana, in 2009, project managers calculated that each seedling was worth $20,000, Falvey said.

Now with more resources, they cost less but each one is still probably worth thousands.

There are now seed orchards in three areas of Montana — Plains, Bozeman and Great Falls – that host seedlings adapted to different environments.

The first 400 seedlings were planted in the 5-acre seed orchard near Bozeman last year.

The seed orchards will provide the seeds of the future, and technicians will soon stop collecting from the original trees found 14 years ago, some of which have already died.

The need for seeds and seedlings will remain high as more wildfires are predicted due to climate change.

On Monday, technicians finished planting more than 21,600 whitebark pine seedlings over 69 acres in the Gallatin Canyon burned by the 2012 Millie Fire.

“When seedling production gets going full bore, we'll be able to plant 1,000 acres a season,” Falvey said.

On Thursday, Falvey and teammate Clay DeMastus finished planting 100 leftover seedlings in a 3-acre test plot and 2-acre holding area. The holding area is for extra seedlings with nowhere else to go.

“Who wants to throw them away after all that work?” DeMastus said.

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