Quick facts

Height 5­-20 meters
Cones egg-shaped
Needles in clumps of 5
Lifespan up to 1000 years
Status: Endangered

whitebark pine cone

The whitebark pine produces some of the most nutritious seeds in the Canadian Rockies. Packed full of protein and fat, these pea-sized seeds are eaten by bears, squirrels and birds.

High on a mountain slope, a whitebark pine stands its ground against the elements – strong winds, snow and cold. This tree is tough.

Whitebark pine grows in subalpine areas of Yoho National Park where it is an important keystone species. It provides habitat for other animals, stabilizes slopes and holds onto the snow pack, making water available to other plants.

Whitebark pine cones need help to open and release their seeds. The Clark’s nutcracker provides that help. It uses its sharp pointy beak to pluck the seeds out of the cones, eats them and then stores the leftovers in the ground for later. The seeds it forgets to collect grow into new trees.

As tough as this tree is, it is declining throughout its range. White pine blister rust, fire suppression and mountain pine beetle are threatening its survival.

Where to see whitebark pine

Hike up the Paget Lookout Trail to the edge of treeline and look for scattered pines with needles in clumps of five. If you are there in the fall, watch and listen for Clark’s nutcrackers collecting seeds. 

Why whitebark pine is at risk

Whitebark pine is declining throughout its range, due to:

  • White pine blister rust: This introduced fungus arrived in shipment of white pine seedlings from Europe in 1906. Less than 1% of North American trees are rust-resistant.
  • Fire suppression: Fire creates open spaces for the sun-loving whitebark pine. Without fire, whitebarks are shaded out by subalpine fir and spruce.
  • Mountain pine beetle: The beetle is spreading upslope due to climate warming and attacking whitebark pine.

What we are doing

Parks Canada is helping to recover whitebark pine (and limber pine, a related species) by:
  • Creating a rust-resistant forest. Seeds are collected from the trees that are naturally resistant to white pine blister rust. They are sprouted in a nursery and planted back into the park.
  • Using prescribed fire to clear spaces for whitebark pine.
  • Putting pheromone bait traps on trees to deter mountain pine beetles. These chemicals signal that the tree is already full of beetles.

Saving Waterton’s whitebark pines

Transcript

[Standard Parks Canada into: beaver logo and web address]

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.]

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.]

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.]

To undo a long history of fire suppression,

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

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.

And 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.]

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.

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.]

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.]

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.]

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.

[Cyndi Smith, Ecosystem Scientist]

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.

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.]

[Credits:]

[Samples used under Creative Commons Sampling Plus 1.0 License:]

[Parks Canada logo.]

[© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by Parks Canada, 2010.]

[Canada wordmark.]

Learn more

Species at Risk Public Registry – Species profile: Whitebark Pine