Life at treeline is precarious at best. Survival in the treeline climate, with its long winter and too short summer, is tough enough. But the climate is the least of the worries facing a whitebark pine tree.
Whitebark pines grow near treeline on our local mountains. Their full-bodied outline, like an oversized broccoli, distinguishes them from the more numerous and skinnier subalpine firs.
If you’ve followed these columns over the years, you’ll remember whitebark pine is the unlucky host for an unwelcome guest: a European fungus called white pine blister rust. The rust made its way to Vancouver around 1910 with a shipment of nursery trees from France. (Why B.C. would import trees from France is unclear, but no doubt it was the same rationale for shipping coal to Newcastle.)
In Europe, the rust co-exists with whitebark pine’s continental cousins. Although the rust in Europe kills some pines and injures others, it doesn’t threaten their long-term survival. But North American pines evolved without the rust and therefore haven’t developed defences to it. Since its introduction almost 100 years ago, the rust has spread quickly across the continent and devastated eight species of pine, including whitebark pine.
The story of white pine blister rust is a great lesson for why not to introduce new species into an ecosystem, a lesson we humans seemed destined to never learn. It’s the tree version of bringing zebra mussels to the Great Lakes, purple loosestrife to our wetlands, and rabbits to Australia. Simply put, an introduction that comes back to bite you in the keester.
Our local whitebark trees continue to die from blister rust and if the trend continues, there’s a chance these icons of treeline will be lost.
Which brings us to this update for the Whistler Naturalists’ Whitebark Pine Conservation Project. This volunteer project started with the collection of seeds in 2000 and has been supported by the Community Foundation of Whistler and the Whistler-Blackcomb Employee Environmental Fund.
So far we’ve planted seedlings on 7th Heaven (in 2002 and 2003), collected more seeds to grow at a nursery, and monitored the survival and growth of the planted seedlings.
This year’s monitoring happened on another perfect fall day. I was joined by two graduate students from UBC Geography: Carmen Wong and Jed Cochran. (Carmen just started a Ph.D. studying whitebark pine and will hopefully include Whistler among her research sites.)
The good news is that the seedlings are doing well, though in an understated way. Mortality seems to have stabilized since only 19 of the original 400 seedlings died in the past year, compared to 61 in the previous year. Approximately three-quarters of all the seedlings we planted in 2002 and 2003 are still alive.
The tallest seedling is now only 17 centimetres, and that’s after two years in a nursery and three years out on 7th Heaven. Average height for the 5 year-old seedlings is less than 10 cm. With growth rates like these, you don’t need to worry about skiing into one of our whitebark pines for quite a long time.
Oct. 14-15. "Fungus Among Us" Mushroom Festival, Myrtle Philip School with mushroom experts Adolf and Oluna Ceska, Andy MacKinnon, and Sharmin Gamiet. Friday night talk, 7:30 p.m. Saturday walks start at 9 a.m. from the parking lot. The afternoon consists of a cooking demo with Ophra Buckman at 1 p.m., and a display of mushrooms also starting at 1 pm.
Written by: Bob Brett