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Tuesday April 10th, 2012  
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New research has found that Whitebark and Limber pines, which were listed by the province as endangered in 2009, are being devastated by a combination of climate change, mountain pine beetle and a rare fungus known as white pine blister rust.
As part of his master’s thesis in conservation biology, University of Alberta student Evan Esch studied Whitebark pine and found that rising temperatures have resulted in the trees falling victim to the beetles and a rare strain of blister rust, a fungal infection which arrived in Canada from Europe in 1910.
Tree health surveys conducted by Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) have found that blister rust has killed off roughly 25 per cent of 30 million Whitebark pine population in the Canadian Rockies and that an additional 40 per cent are infected with the fungus.
According to SRD Southern Rockies Forest Health Officer Brad Jones, this number is even higher in the southern part of the province, where blister rust infection is the worst, with a staggering mortality rate of 50 per cent and 75 per cent infection rate of remaining trees.
Jones said the Waterton area is the worst affected, adding that the majority of still living trees are no longer producing cones.
“They’re more like ‘living dead’, and we’re not entirely sure what is causing it,” said Jones.
Those trees which aren’t infected with the fungus also face the threat of mountain pine beetle, populations of which have had a chance to regenerate over the past year due to milder temperatures and less fire disturbance.
Esch’s research found that the beetles are being found at higher elevations than ever before, due largely to the fact that they are doing well in Limber and Whitebark pines, not just Lodgepole pines, which they have traditionally preferred.
Jones said beetle populations are more abundant up around Grande Prairie and Grande Cache – the northern edge of where Whitebark pines grow – and are significantly lower in the south.

“We’re seeing a real tree health gradient, with far fewer healthy trees the further north you go,” said Jones, adding that SRD has found pockets of trees with low instance of rust infection and beetle infestation in northern areas.
As part of the province’s Whitebark and Limber Pine Recovery Plan, which is currently in progress and will be completed this year, SRD will work to reduce direct mortality through mitigation and habitat management, in addition to locating trees with natural resistance to blister rust, collecting seeds and breeding the trees in greenhouses and SRD’s Tree Improvement and Seed Centre in Smoky Lake.
“The objective is to keep a viable, self-sustaining population,” said Jones.
“If we can get the seeds to germinate… we could breed those trees and put them back out on the landscape.”
Jones noted that while the trees are not commercial commodities (due to their tendency not to grow tall and straight) they both act as keystone foundation species which are integral to forest health.
“The trees produce large seeds which provide valuable nutrients for wildlife (including squirrels, birds and bears),” said Jones.
He added that the trees are also the first species to regenerate and grow after a fire or avalanche, promoting community growth and succession for other tree species such as spruce and fir.
“These trees play a disproportionately large role in the ecosystem,” said Jones.
“That’s why they are so invaluable.”
SRD plans to implement the measures of the recovery plan over the next few years.
For more information, visit under “Lands and Forests”, click on “Forest Health” and then “Forest Pests”.
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