Whitebark pine project the star of the show
Ever wondered about the lengths that Parks Canada is going to in order to help the whitebark pine tree return to its former glory?
If you have six minutes to spare, then put “Planting the Future” on your agenda.
That’s the name of the short online video that it produced to educate the public on its decades-long effort to help both the whitebark and limber pines to fight extinction.
“I'm thrilled with the video,” said Brenda Shepherd, monitoring and species-at-risk biologist in Jasper National Park.
“We're a pretty committed bunch across the parks. I felt like that really came through in the video: how passionate the group is and that we’re really aimed at action. It's nice, instead of monitoring species and watching them decline, to actually take action to help a species recover. It's pretty exciting.”
She said that she was very pleased with Canmore filmmaker Leanne Allison’s work to help educate and inspire people through storytelling in the film.
“Planting the Future” summarizes the status of both tree species and how staff from seven national parks – Jasper, Banff, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Kootenay, Yoho and Waterton – are working together to help recover, monitor, and protect them.
While limber pine is not found north of the Saskatchewan River crossing, the whitebark pine is found in Jasper with its distinctive five needle grouping and broccoli tops. They are found on the tree line and are considered a pioneering species that play a crucial role in the entire ecosystem, affecting animal and plant life right down to the soil. They stabilize slopes and hold onto the snowpack, making water available to other plants while preventing spring flooding.
“It moves in and it creates often these little tree islands. Other species are able to move in after it,” Shepherd described in the video.
Some whitebark pines have been dated more than 1,000 years old.
It thrives in a rare mutualistic relationship with Clark’s nutcrackers with which it co-evolved over tens of thousands of years. The bird is responsible for breaking open its tough dark purple cones, pulling out the seeds and distributing them in the surrounding parkland. It does this for its own future food source, but naturally it also propagates the trees.
The tree’s biggest threat is the invasive white pine blister rust, a fungus that likely transplanted from its European cousins. It is the reason why the trees are endangered though fire suppression efforts, the mountain pine beetle and climate change have also worked against its survival.
“We worry about these big ghost forests,” Shepherd continues in the voiceover during a section of the video showing a small field of dead trees.
“If there are ghost forests, will there not be enough whitebark pine to attract nutcrackers? And if there are no nutcrackers, there’s no future.”
For their work, Shepherd and her teammates climb the trees to actually put cages over the cones to prevent the birds from getting to them. They later harvest those cones to pluck out the seeds themselves, which then get taken to a nursery where they will be fostered into viable seedlings over two years.
To date, Parks Canada has planted more than 60,000 seedlings from these two species, including 22,000 whitebark pine in Jasper National Park alone.
They estimate that half of the seedlings survive, but they won’t actually see them reach their full height in 80 years.
That doesn’t seem to deflate the enthusiasm that Shepherd and her team have for their work.
“We're a pretty committed bunch across the parks. I felt like that really came through in the video: how passionate the group is and that we’re really aimed at action. It's nice, instead of monitoring species and watching them decline, to actually take action to help a species recover. It's pretty exciting,” Shepherd said.
Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh