About Whitebark Pine

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis Engelm.) is a small, open-crowned pine tree that grows at higher elevations from the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California to just north of Fort St. James, British Columbia.  It is the only North American example of a “stone pine”, a worldwide group of pine trees that produce tightly closed cones with large, edible wingless seeds that are specifically adapted for dispersal by birds known as nutcrackers (most other conifers are adapted for seed dispersal by wind).  This co-evolution between the bird and the tree makes whitebark pine especially vulnerable to environmental change, but it also means that the seeds are exceptionally nutritious, being very high in proteins and fats.  Because of its large, edible seeds (known as pine nuts), whitebark pine plays a foundational role in the food chain of subalpine ecosystems - many animals directly or indirectly depend on it for food.  Since nutcrackers often bury their seeds on exposed, open sites, the tree is adapted to extreme weather and plays a key role in establishing new forest ecosystems on harsh, wind-exposed sites.  For these two reasons, whitebark pine is considered a keystone species in high mountain ecosystems.

Because whitebark pine grows slowly and typically has a scraggly form, it has never been in demand as a commercial tree species.  While this affords it some measure of protection, it also means that until recently whitebark pine was mostly ignored by science.  We know relatively little about its biology, ecology and management, especially in central and northern British Columbia. Recently, the 2000s mountain pine beetle outbreak killed many, many northern stands of whitebark pine, and focused attention on this critically important, but now endangered tree species and the ecosystems that depend upon it.

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McKendrick blister rust-resistant pine Sept 2009

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Whitebark cone immature

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Clark's nutcracker

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