Saving the whitebark pine 

Planting program initiated to keep tree numbers up while W-B, Naturalists hope for a breakthrough

The whitebark pine is a unique and sturdy species that is well adapted to survive at high altitudes, clinging to the rock and thin soil of Whistler mountainsides through high winds, heavy rains and blizzards.

It also plays an important role in the ecosystem, battling soil erosion in the alpine while providing food to alpine species of squirrels and birds. It has even formed a symbiotic relationship with the Clark’s nutcracker, providing food in exchange for some help spreading cones and seeds.

Now the whitebark pine is in danger of extinction as a foreign species of fungus, the European white pine blister rust, continues to spread and kill off trees before they can reach maturity and start producing cones.

"In the alpine, the trees don’t start producing cones until they are 60 years old minimum, probably 100 years old on average," explains Bob Brett, an ecologist and director with the Whistler Naturalists who launched the Whitebark Pine Conservation Project four years ago.

"When those trees that are producing cones are done in (by the fungus), there are no seeds in the hamper, so to speak. The species will die out."

Nobody knows how long that will take, but Brett believes it could happen in the next 50 to 100 years.

It’s impossible to kill off or control the Blister Rust, although many have tried. It functions on a two-year cycle, moving back and forth from the trees to bushes in the valley. Spores have been known to travel more than 300 kilometres.

After the second World War, the U.S. government spent $400 million in an attempt to destroy the species of bushes that carry the Blister Rust along the West Coast, but was unsuccessful.

"The only way it will work is to wait our the Blister Rust until a natural or human-made resistance can be found," said Brett.

Brett’s goal is to harvest as many cones as possible in good years, and produce seedlings. The seedlings will be planted in the alpine, and monitored closely. Some pruning will be necessary to remove infected branches from trees.

By increasing the number of trees and keeping them healthy, Brett hopes to produce enough cones to keep the species around until the resistance can be found. This year volunteers managed to plant 200 seedlings on top of the first seedlings planted last year. More will be ready to plant in the summer of 2005. With no seedlings ready to plant in the summer of 2004, that will be a pruning year.

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