Pinus albicaulis, more commonly known as whitebark pine, is a five-needled conifer that makes its home in high elevation forests across its native range. This sometimes scraggly, sometimes towering, tree ekes out its existence in some of the most challenging environmental conditions imaginable. From snowpacks deep enough to bury a tree several metres high to screaming winds, shallow and coarse soils draining away moisture faster than you can say ‘moisture’, and a growing season so short that when you blink it has already passed you by, these trees really are specialists at making a living from their rough and tough environment.
As is true for many species, human impacts of globalization and colonization have brought a foreign pathogen to North America, one which threatens the very presence of whitebark on our landscapes. A fungal disease referred to as white pine blister rust, inadvertently brought to North America at the turn of the century, acts to reduce, and in fatal cases, fully inhibit nutrient transfer within the tree. There is a high probability that most whitebark pine trees will be exposed to this affliction at some point during their existence, a life which commonly exceeds 400 years. Additionally, these trees face threats from native insects, a changing fire regime, and of course climate change.
Whitebark pine is considered a keystone species (an organism that holds a system together) due in part to the number of species that — particularly during a high cone crop year — will obtain higher proportions of calorie intake from seed consumption. These trees produce large nutritious seeds (especially when compared to other pine species) and are an important forage for species like grizzly and black bears and the Clark’s Nutcracker. In fact the relationship between the whitebark pine and Clark’s Nutcracker is so intertwined that these medium sized birds are responsible for the vast majority of whitebark seed dispersal and regeneration.
This season’s Kimberley /Cranbrook Youth Climate Corps (YCC) crew has been working alongside Randy Moody, a biologist specializing in whitebark pine recovery, who has dedicated himself to the study and preservation of this species. Part of the work Moody conducts revolves around the collection of seeds from whitebark trees that show some level of genetic resistance to blister rust.
“The goal is not to target trees that are entirely resistant to the pathogen,” says Moody. “We want to target trees that appear to have some level of resistance to the disease and are living in conjunction with the pathogen. We want to avoid the possibility of the pathogen evolving into a form that is 100% lethal to all whitebark it interacts with.”
The seeds collected are then entered into growing trials with the ultimate goal of producing seedlings that will be able to coexist with this introduced threat.
“Working with Randy and his crew this summer has been very rewarding as we get to directly work in the preservation of this important species,” says crew member Kristen. “Also, since whitebark pine lives in the subalpine, the views when we are working are always amazing and it has been so much fun getting to work in such unique spaces!”
In order to collect whitebark seeds, individuals climb trees and place metal cages around clusters of developing cones in the early summer. Then as autumn arrives in these subalpine forests, crews return to remove the cages and collect fully formed cones. While one person is up in the tree covering these cone clusters, another individual or two will be on the ground recording the number of cones covered by each cage and also making general observations regarding the vigour of the subject tree, presences or absence of blister rust, and marking its location with GPS coordinates.
It is worth noting that this collection process doesn’t affect animal foraging due to the sheer number of cones produced each season.
An added challenge to species restoration and recovery in these high elevation forests is climate change. When you live in some of the highest possible elevations conducive to tree colonization, as the climate warms, it is not so simple to just move higher in elevation. At some point these trees, and other high elevation dwellers, will simply run out of vertical space for dispersal.
Despite what appear to be odds completely stacked against these whitebark pine, there is hope for the restoration and long term survival of this species thanks to researchers like Moody working to protect this special species.
“Working with the whitebark pine program was really rewarding! It was great to be able to help protect and preserve the trees, and seeing all the work that goes into this gives me hope for the future of the species,” shares YCC crew member Nick. “Getting to work in high alpine terrain and learn about the issues that face these trees was exciting, and something I’ll be thinking about for the rest of my life.”