Smithers home to battle to save Western Canada’s only endangered tree

As the wind picks up and lashes icy rain  from clouds that threaten to swallow the subalpine landscape, Sybille  Haeussler and Alana Clason stride up a hill known locally as Toboggan  Hill on Dzilh Yez, or Hudson Bay Mountain, in Smithers. 

Clason  points out a scraggly mid-sized tree at the top of a rocky knoll. “It’s a  bit like an upside down toilet brush,” she says.

The tree  is whitebark pine, the first and only tree in Western Canada to be  designated an endangered species and the only coniferous tree in the  country with the designation. Facing the combined threats of habitat  loss, climate change, the mountain pine beetle and an invasive fungus  called blister rust, the tree was added to the federal endangered species register under the Species At Risk Act in 2012. 

Haeussler and Clason are part of a team of researchers at the Bulkley Valley Research Centre studying the tree with the goal of preventing its extinction.  

Haeussler,  a semi-retired forester and ecologist, first became aware of the plight  of whitebark pine in the 1980s and later chose it as a model species  for her work on resilience and cumulative effects. A species in decline  makes for good data. “We scientists are really prone to that — I can  study this thing dying,” she says, looking at the ground through  black-rimmed glasses while she talks. A battered ball cap keeps her hair  away from her face. “But after about two years, I said, ‘No way, I want  to do something to save the tree.’ ”

Clason, a mountain ecosystems ecologist, became interested in the tree while  studying under Haeussler as a master’s student. It’s August, but she’s  wearing a toque and is bundled in several layers. The wind tears at her  jacket. 

“It  started with me being interested because it was a high-elevation tree  and I liked being in the mountains,” she says. “It became my life’s  passion because of the ecosystem, but also just Sybille inspiring that  love of how important that system is.”

We’re here  on the mountain to visit test restoration sites on the edge of the  alpine prairie, where Haeussler, Clason and other researchers have  planted whitebark seeds and seedlings to study their resilience at their  northern limit and to gain a deeper understanding of how some trees are  rust resistant. 

Whitebark  pine’s natural range in Canada extends from the U.S. border to here and  from the Coast Mountains in B.C. to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains  in Alberta.

“Whitebark pine is a tree that does not tolerate heat and thrives in open,  typically harsh conditions where it doesn’t have to compete with other  tree species,” Haeussler says. 

And whitebark pine does have advantages over other trees. It can grow right on the edge of the alpine, withstanding brutal weather conditions, and on landscapes where there are recurrent outbreaks of fire and bark beetles. 

“Whitebark pine, like all pines, is a tree that thrives on disturbance,” Haeussler says. 

“It’s just  such a badass tree,” Clason says, crouching down on a rocky slope,  looking at a tiny seedling. “Who wants to grow here? There’s hardly any  soil. And it’s just like, ‘Yeah, I can do it.’ ”

Climate change, habitat loss and disease threaten whitebark pine
As  Haeussler leads the way at a brisk pace higher into the alpine, she says  getting the tree recognized as endangered was not an easy process. When  researchers first tried to call attention to the situation in the early  1990s, government capacity to address the issue was severely limited.  

“The  ministry forest service is very focused on commercial trees,” she says.  “So a tree that doesn’t have any commercial value was at that point the  responsibility of the Ministry of Environment. And the Ministry of  Environment is full of wildlife people.” 

Clason  says not much has changed since the tree was declared endangered. Within  government, people who want to help protect species often have to  engage with researchers “from the sides of their desks.” 

“It is definitely still an issue of falling between the cracks,” she says as she follows Haeussler up through the subalpine.  

Clason  says it’s hard to get people to care about something that’s not cute and  cuddly. Then she suddenly reaches down, grinning, and gently touches  another seedling poking out from under the branches of a larger tree.  “But just look at it — how could you not think that’s cute?”

Haeussler explains it was the mountain pine beetle outbreak in the early 2000s  that finally pushed whitebark pine conservation to the forefront. 

Because  the pine beetle can’t survive near the alpine, trees in the mountain  environment might represent the best hope for future conservation  efforts. But because of the harsh weather conditions they endure, these  trees are stunted and their cones are typically smaller. 

“That’s  one of the really sad things about the mountain pine beetle,” Haeussler  says. “It took out almost all of the low-elevation stands, which is  where the trees are bigger and they produce a ton of cones and the seeds  are way better.”

While the  mountain pine beetle finally put the tree on officials’ radar, it has  been under attack for much longer. Climate change has impacted whitebark  pine since the early 1800s, Haeussler says, and blister rust has been  attacking the tree for at least 50 years. “There wasn’t a magical date  when everything suddenly began to fall apart. This crisis has been  building for a very long time.” 

As climate change continues to create warmer environments at higher elevations,  other conifer species spread and compete with the tree for habitat.

“These  other faster-growing tree species are going to move up that slope and  sort of squish out those places where whitebark has been able to eke an  advantage,” Clason explains. 

Forestry  management practices like fire suppression have also reduced areas where  whitebark pine can find an advantage over competing species. After a  wildfire, whitebark pine is one of the first trees to take root. The  open spaces created by natural fires in the subalpine are ideal for the  sun-worshipping tree. Preventing or limiting natural fire events means  there are fewer places where the tree is able to repopulate the  landscape. 

As  whitebark habitat dwindles, the disease attacking it continues to  spread. The invasive fungus originally came from Asia, first travelling  across Europe and reaching North America in the early 1900s. 

Unlike the  mountain pine beetle, blister rust is indifferent to elevation.  However, it needs an alternate host to survive. In the subalpine, that’s  a wildflower.

The  weather clears briefly and Haeussler stops to take photos of the  subalpine landscape, saying she’ll be guiding a group of naturalists  here the following day. Clason points out examples of the flower. It’s a  showy red wildflower and there are plenty of them, punctuating the  meadows of green and yellow and purple that descend down the slope  toward the timberline.  

Blister  rust has a more profound impact on North American trees than on its  Asian counterparts, which have evolved to withstand it. “They still get  diseased, but it doesn’t kill them,” Haeussler says of the Asian trees.

With North  American whitebark pine on a precipitous decline, there’s no time to  wait to see if the species can adapt to the fungus. 

Research aims to identify trees that are rust-resistant and propagate them
Haeussler  and Clason’s work through the Bulkley Valley Research Centre involves  collecting and studying seeds to identify trees that are rust resistant  and then trying to propagate healthy trees on restoration plots. 

“We’re just trying to help evolution move a little bit quicker,” Clason says.

One method  the researchers use is finding healthy trees in stands where all the  other trees are infected. Seeds from those trees have a good chance of  producing rust-resistant seedlings. 

Good  sample sites are generally remote in northwest B.C., so helicopters are  typically used to access the areas and professional arborists are  employed to collect the cones. In the past, Haeussler and her team would  canoe and hike to collection sites, sometimes camping in the bush, and  one of her colleagues would climb the trees to access the best seeds.

Another method the researchers use is planting seeds and exposing seedlings to  the fungus. If they survive, seeds from the parent trees can be  considered viable for restoration planting projects.

One of the  goals of Haeussler and Clason’s work is to collect enough viable seeds  to replant stands in areas the trees might have a chance of surviving.  Once mature — about 40 to 50 years — these stands can then provide new  seeds for future restoration work.   

But  whitebark pine trees produce seeds less frequently than most conifers,  and predicting which years will be good is almost impossible. 

“We had a  good year in 2018,” Haeussler says. “It was pretty much a good year  across the province. We collected around 700,000 seeds. It sounds like a  lot, but if you were collecting from another species, you’d get  millions.” 

Planting  test restoration plots, like the one we’re here to see, serves several  purposes. Some are intended strictly to gather data, not to see the  trees mature, but Clason and Hauessler have also planted seedlings they  hope will survive. On this mountain alone, the research centre has  planted four restoration plots, with another in a cutblock not far  away. 

Haeussler  and Clason aren’t the only ones working on whitebark pine restoration.  Other ecologists, geneticists and tree pathologists from B.C., Alberta  and the U.S. are also closely studying the species. 

“Just like  in the ecosystem, where there are many moving parts that interact  together, the same is true of the people who are trying to save it,”  Clason says. “We come from a number of different disciplines, but it’s  through working together that we’ll figure out how to hopefully  contribute to keeping whitebark pine and all the pieces of the ecosystem  around for a long time.”

Because  whitebark pine conservation is a race against time, Clason says,  researchers funded by Parks Canada and supported by other organizations  are developing “seed orchards.”

When a tree is found to be rust resistant, instead of simply taking its seeds,  researchers cut off a branch and use that to grow a new tree, much in  the same way apple trees are grown. The goal is to get the trees to  produce seeds as quickly as possible. To further speed up the process,  researchers put the trees under stress by, for instance, girdling them  and depriving them of moisture at specific times.  

“It’s  gnarly — they do all sorts of things to them,” Clason says. “It looks  like the trees [have been in] torture chambers, because trees produce  tons of cones when they’re stressed. They look awful, but they produce  seeds like crazy.”

Whitebark pine is a keystone species in a complex ecosystem

Understanding  whitebark pine means understanding its role and interactions within the  ecosystem. Because the tree often grows on steep, exposed, rocky  ridges, its roots stabilize those slopes and help build up snowdrifts,  which melt more slowly than the rest of the snowpack. This means that  melt can help sustain other subalpine species such as lichens, grasses  and wildflowers, and reduce flooding events at lower elevations. 

And while most conifers suffer if they lose needles, whitebark pine is happy to  shed its needles. Over time, they build up and serve as bedding under  the shelter of the tree’s branches for wildlife such as deer and  mountain sheep. 

But the real star of the whitebark pine story is its seeds.  

Unlike  most of its coniferous cousins, whitebark pine seeds are not dispersed  by wind or fire. Instead, their dispersal is almost exclusively  dependent on a single bird: Clark’s nutcracker.

“It cracks open the seeds in the cones and flies away and caches them,” Clason  says. “Nutcrackers are in the corvid family, so they have this  incredible memory. They’re able to go back and retrace their steps and  find those caches, and then feed the seeds to their young.” 

However,  about half of the protein-packed seeds, which are about the size of a  pea, are forgotten and many of them grow into seedlings.  

Clason  points to a mature tree, where the upturned tips of the branches hold  the cones. “These are little landing pads where the bird can come and  snag the seed.”

Just a few  feet away, a little seedling is growing out of a lichen-covered rocky  slope. “It’s hard to get your head around that it was probably a nutcracker that did this and not just the wind.”

The bird  isn’t the only creature that eats whitebark seeds. Clason says the tree  “feeds this entire web of critters that love it, from the nutcracker  that it completely relies on for its dispersal to grizzly bears and  black bears.” 

“We’ll see  whole branches ripped off because bears will climb the trees. They just  love the seeds so much. Squirrels create huge middens — the bears will  also help themselves to that. These incredibly fatty, rich seeds feed a  whole network. It’s just this really intricate and complex and beautiful  system.”

Haeussler and Clason say to adequately address conservation concerns, considering the ecosystem in its entirety is essential.

“If we focus only on helping the tree move more quickly to develop rust  resistance, but we don’t spend any time thinking about where we want the  system to stay intact, then we’re going to break that connection  between whitebark and Clark’s nutcracker,” Clason says. And if that  breaks, then we’ve kind of lost the system.”

The  northern limit, where conditions are colder, is a landscape where  whitebark pine may have a chance of surviving as the climate continues  to warm.

But the  tree can only expand its range if the bird goes with it. And the bird  requires other food sources to survive, such as insects and berries,  which could be difficult to find north of its current range.

Forecasting climate change means considering all the  potential effects on the ecosystem, including on the wildlife and other  tree species. And yet, thus far, Haeussler and Clason have been unable  to get funding to study the nutcracker. 

Whitebark pine still being logged in B.C.

Despite its status as an endangered species, whitebark pine is also still being logged. As The Narwhal reported last year,  since achieving its official designation as endangered in 2012, more  than 19,000 cubic metres of whitebark pine have been logged in B.C. 

The  problem boils down to a jurisdictional issue. While the tree is now  federally protected, provinces have to develop management and recovery  plans, which can take many years. Both the B.C. Ministry of Forests and  Ministry of Environment told The Narwhal there are no such plans in  place. In Alberta, whitebark pine is protected in large sections through  the province’s national parks and any logging of the tree has to be  done with the permission of the Ministry of Environment and Parks.  

Last fall, whitebark pine trees were cut down to make way for the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The company was required to collect the cones from felled trees so  viable seeds could be used in replanting projects, but in June it was  served a stop-work order by the Environmental Assessment Office for failing to do so. 

Coastal  GasLink will now likely purchase viable seeds from the BC Tree Seed  Centre, a seed storage facility in Surrey, according to Haeussler and  Clason. Most of the seeds the researchers collect are sent to that  facility, where they can be safely kept for 10 to 25 years. 

‘We just get super-psyched about our work’

The test  restoration plot is perched on a barren slope. Little seedlings poke  innocuously out of the tundra, tagged with metal identification plates.  Some of the trees didn’t make it — all that’s left is an ID number lying  on the ground. This particular plot was planted by a UBC graduate  student for a genetic study on rust resistance.

Haeussler  points out places on the landscape where whitebark pine is likely to  thrive — rocky outcroppings where other conifer trees can’t grow. She  leads us to one likely location, just down the slope from the  restoration plot, and we find a mature tree already suffering the  effects of blister rust. The tree is bursting with vivid purple pollen  cones. 

“The tree  is under quite a bit of stress because it’s dying of blister,” Haeussler  says, as Clason searches its trunk for the telltale orange fungus. 

In the distance, the fast-moving clouds occasionally reveal glimpses of the  Telkwa Range, a jagged row of mountains with glaciers spilling down  their valleys. We hike through wet knee-high grass and wildflower,  looking for another site where the researchers are trying to grow trees.  They find it among a few other conifer species on a south-facing slope.

The women  huddle over a seedling, both the tree and the scientists seemingly  oblivious to the wind and rain. They’re looking at a bushy cluster of  greenery just a couple of inches tall that grew where Clason planted  seeds a few years ago. 

“Alana was  replicating a nutcracker cache, so she put five seeds in,” Haeussler  says with the hint of a smile. “Very often you’ll get the whitebark  pines in these clumps, up to 20 to 30 seedlings all growing together.”

Clason  fiddles with the little bunch of greenery and estimates it to be at  least three individuals. Her pride is like that of a parent.

“This is  one of those ecosystems that it would be great if it could become  iconic,” she says. “It just makes sense to us that it should.”

While the  researchers love getting out in the field, much of the work is done  behind the scenes, chasing funding, applying for grants, filing reports.  While it’s an arduous process, Haeussler says it doesn’t frustrate her.  “Well actually, you know, we just get super-psyched about our work.” 

Randy  Moody, a plant ecologist and chair of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem  Foundation of Canada, says Haeussler’s strength is not just science,  it’s her way of looking at how to wrestle with conservation issues.  “She’s not just going, ‘OK, the rust levels are high, this is a  problem.’ She’s more thoughtful about how we frame this to resonate with  people. It’s not just clinical, it’s more emotional, much more  emotional than a lot of science.”

While  Haeussler will always be passionate about whitebark pine, she is  planning to pass the torch in the near future. Clason says she’s willing  to take on the work when Haeussler steps back and is “recruiting a  whitebark army, so that we can gear up and get out there to do the  things that Sybille used to do.”

At the end of the day, the storm blows past and Haeussler leads the way back to  her home at the base of the mountain. Wet gear steaming in the sudden  sun, she pulls a tote out of the garage. Bags upon bags upon bags of  reject seeds.

“You see,  these are too small,” she says, picking up a seed. She explains they  sometimes send the seeds away for X-ray to determine their viability.  She and Clason half-joke about throwing these reject seeds out into a  recent burn, where they might take root and thrive — or not. 

Rejects or  not, these whitebark pine seeds are emblematic of the entire ecosystem.  With Clason watching, she carefully gathers a handful.

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