Did you know we had not one, but TWO endangered trees in K-Country?
Yes, it’s possible to have endangered trees, and we have more than two in Canada. The two most worthy of note in K-Country are the closely related Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis) and Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis). Both are listed as Endangered in Alberta under the Wildlife Act and are now Schedule 1 listed in Canada as well. To quote the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) report regarding the Whitebark Pine:
This long-lived, five-needled pine is restricted in Canada to high elevations in the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta. White Pine Blister Rust alone is projected to cause a decline of more than 50% over a 100 year time period. The effects of Mountain Pine Beetle, climate change, and fire exclusion will increase the decline rate further. Likely, none of the causes of decline can be reversed. The lack of potential for rescue effect, life history traits such as delayed age at maturity, low dispersal rate, and reliance on dispersal agents all contribute to placing this species at high risk of extirpation in Canada.
Where do you find Whitebark Pine?
Whitebark Pine occurs at or close to treeline, forming both open and closed forests, often in association with Engelmann Spruce and Subalpine Fir. Needing full sun and open habitat, re-growth and new growth occurs primarily on sites disturbed by fire or avalanche. Habitat quality is declining across its range due to fire exclusion and competition from other trees. Nearly all Whitebark Pine forest in Canada occurs on public and park lands.
Whitebark Pine is a slow growing, long–lived species, often living to more than 500 years and sometimes more than 1,000 years. Cones are typically first produced at 30–50 years but no sizable crop is produced until 60–80 years and cone production is irregular with some years of no or very low production. The generation time (average age of trees) is approximately 60 years.
Whitebark Pine is completely dependent on on bird, the Clark’s Nutcracker, to disperse seeds for regeneration. Cones do not open to release the seed, rather seeds must be removed by the bird and cached in the ground. The seeds are a rich food source and are used by many birds and mammals, including Black and Grizzly bears.
How do you identify a Whitebark Pine?
Limber and Whitebarks have a distinct feature that makes their identification easy: their needles are in clusters of 5. They generally live in different places (Limber low and Whitebark high up in “Larch Land”) but can overlap and coexist.
Mid-summer is the best time to tell the two 5-needle species apart, because a dead giveaway for the species is the cone. A Limber Pine’s are long (up to 20 cm), while a Whitebark’s are short (5-8 cm). While most young cones of any conifer are green, a Limber’s cone is light-brown to greenish-brown, while a Whitebark’s are dark brown to purple. In addition, Limber cones open naturally and fall to the ground. Whitebark cones stay on the tree unless an animal knocks them off. So if you see a tree, look on the ground and the cones will tell you the type of tree.
Why are they endangered?
White Pine Blister Rust is killing both Limber and Whitebark Pines. Accidentally introduced from Eurasia, it was first identified in Canada in 1921, and made it to Alberta in 1952. Infection rates are now up to 60% of trees, and mortality is 50%, and both are increasing. Knock branches off the tree accidentally, or damage the bark by using the tree as a hand-hold, and you make pathways for the Rust’s spores to enter the tree. Brush against the Rust, then brush against a healthy tree, and you can transfer the Rust. In these ways and others, hikers & bikers can readily put a healthy tree at risk. If that weren’t bad enough, they’re also very susceptible to Pine Beetle, too, especially in a rust-weakened state.
Can I see one easily?
Get up high in K-Country and you’ll probably find Whitebarks at treeline if you look for the distinctive 5 needles. Our observation is that any “popular” hiking spot that has Whitebarks features damaged trees.
- Super popular West Wind Pass has a grove of Whitebarks right at the pass. Few are old enough to have cones; many are sick with rust. Several have been harmed by hikers, who have broken off branches and one or two have been burned as firewood.
- The informal route to Pocaterra Cirque on the way to everything from Pocaterra Ridge to Grizzly Col to Mt. Trywhitt goes right through a stand of Whitebarks. Hikers here have inflicted a stunning amount of damage to the trees in this area.
- Picklejar Lakes has stands of Whitebarks on the way to the lake. At the lakes, Whitebarks have been cut down for firewood.
- Ha Ling’s trail re-route was planned to avoid Whitebark stands. The old route when right by and through Whitebarks, and many were damaged.
Look for the 5 needles and you’ll find them all over K-Country in the alpine, often growing with Lyall’s Larches. A lot of damage is done to Whitebarks during Larch season by hikers heading into their fragile environs.
What is the Province doing to save them?
You can read Alberta’s 5 Needle Pine Recovery Plan here. As an endangered tree, this is another thing that Parks Ecology keeps its eye on. They welcome reports of stands of any 5-needle pine tree – Limber or Whitebark – as they continue to inventory them to develop plans for their protection and recovery. There’s an app you can use to report 5-needle pines, but at this moment, it’s not available to the public. We’ll pass along to you when it is.
Read about some of the other fascinating plants of Kananaskis Country here!