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.
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
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.
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.
- Parks Canada’s Conservation and Restoration Program
- Parks Canada fire management
- Mountain pine beetle
- White pine blister rust
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