Jasper National Park
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
|2021||Jasper National Park||7 850
|2020||Mount Robson Provincial Park Collaboration||800
|2020||Jasper National Park||1 655
|2019||Jasper National Park||3 800
|2018||Jasper National Park||2 729
|2017||Mount Robson Provincial Park Collaboration||4 200
|2017||Jasper National Park||~ 470
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.
Species at risk public registry - species profile: Whitebark pine
Multi-species Action Plan for Jasper National Park of Canada (2017)
Jasper National Park Facebook LIVE - Pine in Decline
Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation of Canada
The Nutcracker 2: The Second One
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry: Living on the Edge story map about Alberta's whitebark and limber pine
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