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.

Skeleton whitebark pine forest and (inset) blister rust cankers

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.

Whitebark pine and the closely related limber pine are species at risk. A non-native fungal disease called white pine blister rust, fire suppression, mountain pine beetle, and climate change are threatening the survival of these trees.

An old friend to wildlife

Clark’s nutcrackers use their long, pointed beaks to break apart the large cones and remove the seeds

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.

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.

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

Parks Canada has 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.

Whitebark and limber pine trees can be recognized by their needles, which grow in bundles of five. The more common lodgepole pine has needles in bundles of two.

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.

Volunteers assist Parks Canada with planting and monitoring whitebark and limber pine seedlings in Waterton Lakes National Park. See volunteer opportunities to learn more.

More information

Learn what Parks Canada is doing to help recover whitepark pine in Waterton Lakes National Park, including:

  • Creating rust-resistant forests
  • Using prescribed fire to clear spaces for whitebark pine
  • Putting pheromone bait traps on trees to deter mountain pine beetle.

Video: Saving Waterton's whitebark pines


Visual: Standard Parks Canada intro: beaver logo and web address

Narrator: In the ancient battle against the extreme elements of high alpine slopes, the whitebark pine has emerged victorious.

Timelapse of a high alpine slope in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Panning close-up of a whitebark pine tree.

Long shot of whitebark pine trees on alpine slopes as the sun sets.

Narrator: These trees can stand as sentinels of the harsh high slopes for more than 1000 years at a time, providing crucial high energy seeds for diverse species, including grizzly bears, black bears, red squirrels, and Clark’s nutcrackers.

Close-up of whitebark pine seds followed by medium shots of black bears and grizzly bears, red squirrels and a close-up shot of a Clark's nutcracker feeding on the seeds.

Narrator: They can thrive where others wither and die. Yet a perfect storm of fire suppression, blister rust, and mountain pine beetles means this remarkable struggle could come to an end.

Close-up shot of blister rust on a branch; and a photo of a mountain pine beetle.

Timelapse of a whitebark pine tree snag in Waterton.

Narrator: To undo a long history of fire suppression, Parks Canada staff are working to mimic low grade lightning strikes that creates new habitat for the whitebark seedlings.

Medium shot of helicopter delivering equipment to Waterton’s fire crew at a burn area.

Narrator: Parks Canada staff are working to mimic low grade lightning strikes that creates new habitat for the whitebark seedlings. However this is only if they can keep the fire under control.

Denis Haché, Project Manager: The tricky thing about implementing a burn like this is getting the right conditions. We want the ground to be wet to prevent the fire from spreading, and there are some whitebark pine in the area and we want to make sure that they stay here.

Haché: Right now, behind me, you can see that they’re using the flamethrower to burn off some of the mature trees in order to create the right conditions for planting the whitebark pine seedlings.

Medium shots of the fire crew, using a flame-thrower, burning some mature spruce and fir trees in the Summit Lake area of Waterton.

Narrator: After hours of controlled burning, many of the mature fir and spruce that out-compete whitebark pine in the region are burned off. And this opens the area for new seedlings of this endangered species to be introduced.

Shots of the burn area once the fire has gone out.

Cyndi Smith, Ecosystem Scientist, standing next to a healthy whitebark pine tree: What we’re doing today is coming in and planting some trees that we think might have some resistance to this blister rust.

Smith: What we do is collect seeds from trees that are healthy and producing cones, when most of the trees around them are dead. So that probably means that there has been some natural selection already, and those trees have some resistance to the blister rust.

Shots of cones from some healthy trees being collected by Parks Canada staff; comparison shots of healthy and dead trees.

Close-up shots of newly-planted seedlings.

Narrator: But planting such a large number of seedlings creates another problem: manpower, and Parks Canada counts on the help of volunteers, and staff from Montana’s Glacier National Park, to bring the total to nearly 2500 seedlings planted since 2009.

Shots of Parks Canada staff, staff from Glacier National Park in Montana, and volunteers planting whitebark pine seedlings in the burn area.

Narrator: The seedlings are grouped to maximize survival and mimic the caching behaviour of Clark’s nutcrackers, and with a dash of water, they are left to fend for themselves.

More pictures of healthy whitebark pine trees. A medium shot of Parks Canada staff attaching chemical packs to some healthy trees.

Narrator: With hopes placed in the newly planted generation, the last challenge is to give the adult trees that have proved resistant to blister rust protection against the invasion of mountain pine beetles.

This requires that chemical packs to deter beetles are placed on the mature trees, and from here it's a waiting game.

Smith: We’re planting for our grandchildren’s generation; because these trees will not, even if they’re healthy and resist the blister rust and avoid the pine beetle, they’re probably going to be 40 years old before they produce any cones.

Smith: So we’re doing this with a lot of faith in the future, and a lot of faith that this species is going to be on the landscape still in the future, so we have to look long term with this project.

Long shots of silhouettes of whitebark pine trees in front of a sunset.

Visual: Samples used under Creative Commons Sampling Plus 1.0 License:

Visual: Parks Canada/Parcs Canada logo.

Visual: Copyright - Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by Parks Canada

Visual: Government of Canada logo/wordmark.