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Whitebark woes

Pine trees in peril

High up on a mountain slope a sturdy whitebark pine stands its ground against the elements. It grows in the harsh subalpine environment where few other plants can survive.

In these windswept places the whitebark pine stabilizes soil, creates habitat, and holds snow to control water flowing from the mountains in the spring. It is an impressive sight; however, it is now more common to see skeletons of these trees where they once thrived.

Healthy whitebark pine trees
Healthy whitebark pine trees © Parks Canada

Whitebark pine (pinus albicaulis) and the closely related limber pine (pinus flexilis) are species at risk. A non-native fungal disease called White pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), fire suppression, mountain pine beetle, and climate change are threatening the survival of these trees.

 Skeleton whitebark pine forest and inset blister rust cankers
Skeleton whitebark pine forest and (inset) blister rust cankers © Parks Canada

An old friend to wildlife

Slow growing, whitebark and limber pine may not produce cones until they are over 50 years old. When cones develop, their seeds are similar to the pine nuts sold in stores. The seeds are an important source of protein for animals like the Clark's nutcracker, red squirrel, and grizzly bear.

The whitebark pine and Clark's nutcracker have a particularly special connection. The tree relies on the nutcracker, with its long pointed beak, to break apart cones and spread seeds.

Close-up of a Clark's nutcracker Clark's nutcracker © Parks Canada

The Clark's nutcracker gathers and stores seeds for the winter, usually in places that are open, sunny and likely to remain mostly snow-free.

These locations are also great places for whitebark pine trees to grow. The Clark’s nutcracker does have a very good memory, but about half the stored seeds are forgotten and left to grow into new trees.

Firing up restoration

Historically Rocky Mountain fires were more frequent, and were mostly small and patchy. They created open spaces for the nutcracker and whitebark pine. Fire suppression has interrupted this process.

Parks Canada has now developed a Terra Torch to burn small patches the way lightning strikes would have in the past. This technique has been used to complete prescribed fires in 26 small plots near Summit Lake.

Seeds from surviving trees have been collected, grown into seedlings, and planted in the burned areas and in other places in the park. The seeds are taken from healthy trees found in forests where most others have been infected or killed by the white pine blister rust disease. It is hoped that these trees will be resistant to the blister rust.

As of 2012, there have been 4,481 whitebark pine and 835 limber pine seedlings planted in the park.

Parks Canada conducts a prescribed fire to create openings for whitebark pine
Parks Canada conducts a prescribed fire to create openings for whitebark pine © Parks Canada

Volunteers have helped with seed gathering and planting; check the volunteer page for future opportunities. Whitebark and limber pine trees can be recognized by their needles, which grow in bundles of five. The more common lodgepole pine (pinus contorta) has needles in bundles of two.

Volunteers help plant whitebark pine seedlings in Waterton
Student volunteers help plant whitebark pine seedlings © Parks Canada

Next time you’re hiking in Waterton Lakes National Park, take the time to see if you can find one of these special five-needled pines.

Try our whitebark pine geocaching challenge which will take you to as many as six national parks in the Canadian Rockies to bring attention to the whitebark pine tree.

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