Monday, 21 November 2016 08:00

Pine tree planting will go a long way towards improving environment

Written by  Stephanie Labbe
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This fall, Parks Canada planted 1,000 rust-resistant seedlings on Sofa Mountain in Waterton Lakes National Park. Crews planted the seedlings in an area burned by a prescribed fire earlier in the season. This fall, Parks Canada planted 1,000 rust-resistant seedlings on Sofa Mountain in Waterton Lakes National Park. Crews planted the seedlings in an area burned by a prescribed fire earlier in the season. Image contributed by Parks Canada

There will be 1,000 new whitebark pine trees in Waterton Lakes National Park thanks to Parks Canada officials.

Recently, 1,000 new whitebark pine trees were planted in the Park as this species of trees has been identified as endangered under the Species at Risk Act.
Robert Sissons, vegetation specialist with Parks Canada, says the number of whitebark pines have declined throughout their range due to introduced white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetles, climate change and historic fire suppression.
“Whitebark pine stands have an 80 to 90 per cent infection rate of invasive white pine blister rust in Waterton Lakes National Park. This tree species plays a critical role in sub-alpine ecosystem and is considered a keystone species,” adds Sissons.
The whitebark pine is a keystone species upon, which others depend. Sissons says many animals, such as grizzly bears, black bears, red squirrels and Clark’s nutcrackers use whitebark pine seeds as an important food source.
“The nutcracker is the primary means of dispersal of whitebark seeds. These trees also help stabilize steep slopes and influence the rate of snow melt in alpine and sub-alpine landscapes. Whitebark pine is slow growing and slow to reproduce. It was assessed as endangered in 2010 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and was protected under the Species At Risk Act (SARA) in 2012,” he adds.
Planting the 1,000 whitebark pines in Waterton was part of an ongoing effort to protect whitebark pine. These two-year-old trees are rust-resistant seedlings planted on Sofa Mountain. They were grown in a nursery from seeds collected in the park.
Crews went out and planted the seedlings in an area that was burned by prescribed fire earlier in the season. The seedlings were grown from seeds collected from trees that show natural resistance to the invasive white pine blister rust, which increases their chances of surviving long term.
“The seedlings were planted in groups of three to mimic the natural seed stashes made by Clark’s nutcrackers. Whitebark pine depends on the Clark’s nutcracker to reproduce as the bird spreads whitebark seeds across a large area. The bird poke seeds out of cones and stores them in the ground where they can germinate one to three years later.
We also record the plot coordinates and seedling measurements to help with monitoring the trees.
We will come back to check on their progress at scheduled intervals,” adds Sissons.
The hope from planting these rust-resistant whitebark pines is to protect and renew whitebark pine across the mountain national parks through a project funded by the Conservation of Restoration (CoRe) Program.
“Through this conservation work, Parks Canada takes actions to preserve national parks and contribute to the recovery of species at risk like the whitebark pine,” he adds.
Whitebark pine can be found in all the mountain national parks and therefore, Sissons says the Parks Canada teams are actively applying restoration techniques to improve the natural renewal of this species at risk.
The Whitebark pine can begin to produce seeds after 60 years and full cone crops at approximately 80 years of age.
Healthy whitebark pines can live for more than 500 years. Sissons says hopefully future children and grandchildren will see these seedlings reach maturity.
It’s still too early to determine the outcome of the program and that natural survival rates vary, depending on many different factors.
“The target for this CoRe program is a 60 per cent survival rate after three to five years. In the coming years, we plan to continue our work to restore whitebark pine in Waterton Lakes National Park and the other mountain national parks,” adds Sissons.
Doing this restoration work will include partnering with other groups and agencies and engaging Canadians through programming and outreach to educate people about the importance of this endangered species.
Sissons explains during the summer, Parks Canada interpreters present information about whitebark pine restoration with educational theatre performances and guided hikes.
Over the last seven years, they have planted about 6,000 rust-resistant seedlings and they plan to increase their restoration efforts in the years ahead by planting 5,000 to 10,000 seedlings annually.
“Parks Canada is working to restore whitebark pine in all the mountain national parks. This initiative involves multiple parks and multiple agencies.”
Sissons says they send their seeds to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Tree Improvement Centre in Smokey Lake, Alta. They are cleaned and stored for Parks Canada for future testing or sowing. Some of the seeds that Parks Canada collects are sent to colleagues at United States Forest Service greenhouse stations in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho and Dorena, Oregon where they are added to rust-resistance trials.
Parks Canada officials are also developing hands-on learning tools, exhibits and interpretation to help visitors and residents in the mountain national parks better understand and get involved in recovering this species. Examples of some of the different whitebark specific programs Parks Canada has include geocaching, guided hikes, mobile outreach exhibits, street theatre and citizen science.

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