By Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Parks Canada resource management officer Nick Lai has seen a lot of the whitebark pine’s successes over his few years of working in Jasper National Park.
One of the big challenges is helping it improve its resistance to blister rust.
“We’re still looking for new resistant trees,” he said.
Lai and his team members have been conducting resistance stream testing to determine the trees’ resistance to the non-native fungus that is a major threat to the tree.
They send seeds to a forestry center in Vernon, B.C. where technicians germinate approximately 30 seedlings and then infect them with blister rust. They then monitor how many seedlings survive.
There was one tree tested in 2023 that has shown such genetic resistance.
There are now two such elite trees in Jasper National Park, the first one in the Geraldine area and the second one in the Palisades.
The whitebark pine is considered a keystone species throughout the Rocky Mountains and the entire range, which extends out to the Coast Mountains.
“Essentially, they’re high elevation subalpine trees that provide a large food source to a lot of the animals in the park (such as grizzly bears, black bears, red squirrels, and also the Clark’s nutcracker),” Lai said.
“They also provide help to regulate the snow melt in the spring. By having these trees up in the subalpine, they create a bit more shade, which then retains the snow in the spring and moderates how much of it melts throughout the spring and into the summer. That can help us here down low with flooding and stuff like that.”
It is also the only federally listed endangered tree in Western Canada. Parks Canada is obligated to protect it within the park boundary. Jasper National Park being 11,000 sq. km. makes it difficult to know exactly how many of these trees there are to protect. That effort has been ongoing since the program’s inception.
“Something that’s part of the restoration is trying to discover where all these trees exist in the park and see which stands may potentially have resistant trees,” Lai said. “We’re still in the process.”
In years when there is a cone crop, Lai and his whitebark technician go up the trees to collect cones from previously identified blister rust-resistant trees after they have matured in the autumn. Those cones then go to the nursery where saplings are fostered.
Once those seedlings are of age, they will be brought back into the park to be replanted for restoration purposes in areas that are burnt or areas that are just suitable for whitebarks to grow.
According to the Multi-species Action Plan for Jasper National Park of Canada, the whitebark pine is also vulnerable to forest ingrowth by other tree species, especially in areas where natural fire cycles have been disrupted through fire suppression.