High in the forests of the mountain parks, there’s a sun-loving tree that relies on a small bird to spread its seeds.
The whitebark pine, which has five needles and hard cones, plays an important role in stabilizing steep slopes, controlling the rate of snow melt and providing habitat for that bird (called the Clark’s nutcracker ), for squirrels and for bears in the mountains.
In 2010, the tree was federally listed as an endangered species in Alberta and British Columbia.
“We’ve got blister rust, mountain pine beetle, climate change and fire all playing a role in impacting the health and abundance of our whitebark and limber pines,” said Jed Cochrane, fire and vegetation specialist with Parks Canada.
Both trees are now part of a three-year recovery project in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay, which recently received almost $50,000 in funding, to ensure that they continue throughout their range in the mountain national parks.
Similar efforts are being made at the provincial level to map, carry out assessments and protect the trees as part of an Alberta whitebark pine recovery plan.
Limber pine is not yet listed as a species at risk, but it faces similar threats as whitebark pine — a species that declined by more than 50 per cent in the past 100 years due to a pathogen called blister rust.
“The five-needle pines are in trouble,” explained Cochrane. “It’s pretty aggressive.”
The blister rust basically infects the trees, creating cankers or ‘scabs’ about the size of a human fist on the outside of it and requiring the tree to produce a lot of sap to fight it off.
Cochrane said it can ultimately kill the tree, which can normally grow to be 500 years old.
“That rust, introduced in the 1900s, it’s been hammering on our five-needle pines,” he said.
Whitebark pine cones don’t open on their own so they rely on the Clark’s nutcracker for seed dispersal.
“It’s a really fatty, nutritious seed,” said Cochrane. “Grizzly bears love it, squirrels love it and the Clark’s nutcracker loves it.”
The bird, known as a champion for the trees, flies along and lands on top of the tree, using its long, pointed beak to gets into the cone and collect the seeds.
“It can put 60 to 100 seeds in its beak,” he explained.
The bird then flies around and caches the seeds in forest openings for food in the later months.
“In really big seed years, it doesn’t go back for them all, so the ones it doesn’t eat grow into trees,” said Cochrane. “That’s how the whitebark and limber have their seeds dispersed.”
The recovery project in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay will help improve the conditions — and plant the seeds — for the endangered trees.
Cochrane said they will use prescribed fires to knock back competing trees that thrive in the shade and create more open, sunnier spots for whitebark and limber pine to thrive — one of the many reasons for prescribed fire.
Once the forest openings are created, the Clark’s nutcrackers will start using the area to hide their seeds, he said.
Parks staff will also use those areas to plant seedlings, which are being grown from the seeds of trees showing resistance to the blister rust.
Cochrane said they’ve been placing cages — a soft mesh similar to a window screen — over the cones early in the season to prevent the Clark’s nutcracker from taking all of the seeds.
“We go back in September when the cones have matured and we take the cage off and collect the cones,” he said. “We take those cones and take the seeds out.”
Some of the seeds are sent to nurseries, where they take up to two years to grow into tiny trees, and others are sent to a lab in British Columbia where scientists are researching why some trees are showing a resistance to blister rust.
“We’ll keep caging those trees, growing their seedlings and going back out and planting these resistant seedlings,” he said, noting they will plant about 70 seedings this year.
Another 2,000 seedlings are being grown for each of the following two years.
“Whitebark likes the high elevation,” said Cochrane. “It also likes warm western or southerly aspects, generally. So, we’d want to go in and pick places like that.”
Some of the sites could include areas where wildfires went through — such as one in Numa in Kootenay and another at Spreading Creek in Banff — because whitebark is one of the first trees to establish after a fire.
Cochrane said it’s important work to help restore the species, which has a healthy population but is in trouble because it regenerates so slowly.
“If we don’t do something now, they are going to be gone,” he said. “They are considered a keystone species at that high-elevation environment. They are the tree that grows first and then all of the plants and animals come in after.”
Some of the trails where you can see whitebark pine include: Boom Lake and Helen Lake trails in Banff National Park, Stanley Glacier and Kindersley-Sinclair trails in Kootenay National Park and Paget Lookout in Yoho National Park.