Quick facts

Size 5-20 metres
Cones are egg-shaped
Needles grow in clumps of 5
Lives up to 1000 years
SAR Status: Endangered (2012)

 

Whitebark pine trees (Pinus albicaulis) are an important species of the subalpine environment. This unique tree helps define the ecosystem by stabilizing soil, creating habitat, producing important food for animals and regulating spring water flow from the mountains.

Growing in the subalpine is not an easy task for plants: The conditions are harsh and the growing seasons are short. For whitebark pine, this means that it can take up to 30-50 years before they can produce cones; but they won’t produce them in decent quantities until they are 60-80 years old. Then to reproduce they rely completely on a bird, the Clark’s nutcracker, to spread their seeds. The Clark’s nutcracker collects whitebark pine seeds to store for food over winter. Since the birds store more seeds than they need, many are left in the ground where they will grow into new whitebark pine trees.

 
An important partnership
Banded Clark's Nutcracker

Whitebark pine depends on Clark’s nutcrackers for survival. This special relationship is called mutualism.

Whitebark pine cones are unable to open on their own and spread their seeds. Thanks to their strong curved beak, Clark’s nutcrackers are perfectly suited for this task.

Where they live

Whitebark pine in Jasper National Park grows high up on mountain slopes from about 1 500 to 2 200 metres. At these high elevations, they stand strong against harsh conditions where few other trees and plants can survive.

Whitebark pine may be rare, but they are one of the oldest tree species of the Rocky and Columbia Mountain chain. They are found in seven of Canada’s national parks: Jasper, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Banff, Kootenay, Yoho and Waterton Lakes.

whitebark pine habitat

Why they are at risk

As hardy as the whitebark pine is, it is declining throughout its range, including within the mountain national parks. It faces the many challenges brought on by white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetle, historical fire suppression and climate change. As a slow-growing tree species that relies on Clark’s nutcracker to spread its seeds, it needs our help to recover.

White pine blister rust

This introduced, invasive fungus arrived in a shipment of white pine seedlings from Europe in 1906. Less than 1% of North American trees are naturally rust-resistant.

Mountain pine beetle

Mountain pine beetle outbreaks in lodgepole pine forests are spreading to higher elevations due to climate warming. As a result, the beetles are also attacking whitebark pine.

Historic fire suppression

Older whitebark pines can survive low-intensity fires which remove competing vegetation. Habitat change due to historical practices of putting out all wildfires reduced the opportunities for seedlings to grow.

Climate change

The combined effects of climate change may decrease suitable whitebark pine habitat in the alpine.

Extreme weather events like fires and droughts have the potential to impact whitebark pine populations.

How we are helping

Cone collection and planting

We climb whitebark pine trees that show natural resistance to blister rust and put cages over their cones. These cages keep the cones away from animals that would break into them to eat their valuable seeds. When the seeds are ready in autumn, we collect them and send them to a nursery to be planted. After two years in the nursery, seedlings can be planted back in their mountain habitat or sent for rust-resistance testing.

Fire management

Whitebark pines are often shaded out by subalpine fir and spruce. The sun-loving whitebark pine thrives in recently burned areas. Fires in areas that don't pose risks to people or infrastructure may be allowed to burn with minimal to no intervention. This allows a more natural fire structure to return to the area.

Prescribed fires in whitebark pine habitat create open spaces. During prescribed fires, we protect existing stands of whitebark pine.

Research

Over the past decade, we have assessed tens of thousands of whitebark pine trees to identify several hundred trees that appear to have a natural resistance to white pine blister rust. These rare trees are tested to prove rust resistance, a process that normally takes 5 years in a controlled facility.

Mechanical thinning

Parks Canada helps whitebark pine trees in denser forests by cutting down competing species. This process mimics a prescribed fire, but without the risk of damaging whitebark pine trees. To date, we have implemented this project at Geraldine Lookout and Palisades Lookout.

Pheromone protection

Pheromones are chemicals that bark beetles use to communicate with each other. They let beetles know where they can find a mate and a place to lay eggs, or when a tree is “full” and they should try another tree.

Pheromone packets that mimic the natural pheromones of mountain pine beetles, called verbenone, are attached to whitebark pine trees to protect trees. The pheromones fool beetles into thinking that the tree is already full.

During the mountain pine beetle outbreak in Jasper National Park from 2013 to 2019, Parks Canada saved over 80% of rust-resistant whitebark pine trees from being killed by mountain pine beetle using verbenone.

Planting the Future: Saving whitebark and limber pine

Transcript

The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit

>> BRENDA: There have been a couple of whitebark

pine in the Canadian Rockies that have been aged around 1000 years old.

Sun shining through a Limber Pine tree.

I mean these trees have seen such incredible

change in the world since they were seedlings like the ones we’re planting.

Planting the Future

Woman leading a pack horse up a mountain

Whitebark and limber pine are at risk of extinction.

Seven national parks have joined forces to recover, monitor and protect these special trees.

Looking out a helicopter at Mountains and valley cloud

All of the Mountain Parks, so that’s Waterton,

Revelstoke-Glacier, Kootenay, Yoho, Banff and Jasper.

Parks Staff hiking and climbing a Whitebark Pine tree.

We all work together, we’re relying on each other trying to recover whitebark pine and

limber pine together.

Brenda Shepherd, Biologist, Jasper National Park

Whitebark pine is a pioneering species and

so it moves in and it creates, often, these little tree islands and other species are

able to move in after it.

Allison Fisher, Biologist, Yoho National Park

>> ALLISON: My favourite thing about whitebark

pine, the fact that nutcrackers are almost exclusively responsible for allowing them to regenerate.

Hilary Cameron, Biologist, Banff National Park

>> HILARY: I love that they just grow in these

really rough exposed areas and that they are so resilient and they just live for hundreds

of years.

Genoa Alger, Biologist, Waterton Lakes National Park

>> GENOA: Once we found a limber pine that

was just growing straight into a cliff, like it’s surviving and thriving.

Rebecca Smith, Biologist, Banff National Park

>> REBECCA: These trees have an absolutely

crucial role in both the plant communities and the animal communities, the soil communities,

probably more communities than we understand right now.[Laugh]

>> BRENDA: The Clark’s nutcracker and the whitebark pine have a really important relationship.

It’s called a mutualism, really rare in nature, where both species depend on each

other for their survival.

Clark's Nutcracker picks seeds out of Whitebark Pine cones.

The cones will not open on their own.

The nutcracker has a specialized beak to be able to open the cones and then it will fly

off to different parts of the forest where it will deposit seeds and then months later

Allison points to seedling from a Clark's Nutcrack cache.

they will fly back, find that exact spot and dig out the seeds and eat them.

And it’s only seeds that they don’t eat that become whitebark pine seedlings.

Rebecca walks through a stand of White bark Pines.

They evolved together, these two species,

over tens of thousands of years.

Whitebark and limber pine face many threats.

The deadliest threat is an invasive fungus called white pine blister rust.

>> ALLISON: So you can see that kind of spindle

Allison shows a diseased branch of a Whitebark tree.

shape, there’s a lot of swelling, coarse bark, and you can see some of the inactive

rust oozing out, and then this section of the branch is all dead.

>> BRENDA: These trees did not evolve with white pine blister rust and that’s what’s

really important about why this causes the tree to become endangered.

This disease came in in the early 1900’s and the tree just doesn’t have the traits

to be able to fight it off.

So we worry about these big ghost forests.

If there are ghost forests, will there not be enough whitebark pine to attract nutcrackers

and if there are no nutcrackers, there’s no future.

We climb the tree in the early summer.

We put cages on the cones, the cones mature, but they don’t get eaten by birds or squirrels.

We climb back up late September, pick the cones and then the cones dry and then we extract

the seeds from the cones.

We send those seeds to a nursery and then the nursery spends two years growing these guys.

We want to plant enough trees at a high enough

Parks Canada Staff planting trees.

density that in eighty years we will have a forest of cone producing trees that will

attract Clark’s nutcrackers back and these birds will continue to allow these stands

to persist and so that’s how we will create these self-sustaining recovered whitebark pine stands.

So there’s a lot of hope involved in keeping

a really positive attitude about what we’re doing, the fact that none of us here will

be alive to know whether this was successful.

Since 2014, Parks Canada has planted over 60,000 whitebark and limber pine seedlings in the mountain national parks. This work will continue for years to come.


Planting

Numbers of whitebark pine seedlings planted annually by Parks Canada

Year Area Seedlings
2021 Jasper National Park 7 850
Details
  • Cavell Meadows: 700 seedlings
  • Moab Lake Burn: 2 900 seedlings
  • Excelsior Burn: 500 seedlings
  • Whistlers Creek: 1 200 seedlings
  • Bald Hills: 650 seedlings
  • Wilcox Pass: 100 seedlings
  • Signal Mountain: 1 800 seedlings
2020 Mount Robson Provincial Park Collaboration 800
Details
  • Alpland Ridge: 800 seedlings
2020 Jasper National Park 1 655
Details
  • Muhigan Mountain: 1 455 seedlings
  • Cavell Meadows: 200 seedlings
2019 Jasper National Park 3 800
Details
  • Whistlers Mountain: 650 seedlings
  • Mount Greenock Burn: 750 seedlings
  • Moab Lake Burn: 2 400 seedlings
2018 Jasper National Park 2 729
Details
  • Cavell Meadows: 114 seedlings
  • Mount Greenock: 220 seedlings
  • Moab Lake Burn: 635 seedlings
  • Miette Lake: 1 760 seedlings
2017 Mount Robson Provincial Park Collaboration 4 200
Details
  • Berg Lake: 550 seedlings
  • Robson Pass: 3 650 seedlings
  • Moose Burn: 3 000 seeds
2017 Jasper National Park ~ 470
Details
  • Wilcox Pass: ~ 100 seedlings
  • Simpson Burn: ~ 370 seedlings

Planting locations of whitebark pine seedlings in Jasper National Park

How you can help

Whitebark pine can be hard to identify. Learn to identify whitebark pine trees so you can work to protect them. Do not touch or remove any parts from whitebark pine trees. Visit our web page with essential information for residents and businesses.

Whitebark pine cones

 
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