The Whitebark Pine inhabits high mountain realms well beyond the limits of other tree species. In these subalpine ecosystems [at elevations of up to 12,000 feet, on exposed slopes and ridges subject to hurricane-force winds and temperatures down to minus-60°F], Whitebark Pine is not only a great survivor; it’s a great provider – a foundational species in ten states and two Canadian provinces that provides food and shelter for countless high country birds and animals, from mountain goats to grizzly bears.
Slow-growing and long-lived (the oldest known specimen in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains is estimated to be nearly 1,300 years old), Whitebark Pine is a 5-needle pine that takes on very different growth forms based on environmental factors.
At the highest elevations, Whitebarks are hammered by the elements into a krummholz form: low-growing, shrublike, and windswept – dwarfed by years of exposure and crushing loads of snow and ice that persist nine months of the year. This low-cast alpine form explains Whitebark’s other names:“ Scrub Pine” and “Creeping Pine.”
At lower elevations, where conditions are not as extreme, Whitebark Pines are larger and feature upswept branches with tips crowded with lush foliage. In this setting, Whitebark Pines can grow to 60 feet tall with shining white trunks 2-3 feet across. The largest known Whitebark Pine is 90 feet tall.
Pinus albicaulis is one of five pine species worldwide classified as “Stone Pines.” These trees are distinguished by their large, dense, and wingless seeds. Stone Pines are unique in their total dependence on birds and animals for seed dispersal and the ultimate survival of their species.
Whitebark Pines turn out clumps of dark purple-brown, egg-shaped cones, drizzled in resin and ripe with heavy, nutritious seeds. These seeds are a staple food source for a variety of animals; especially the Clark’s Nutcracker, a rowdy, black-white-and-gray jay, which makes Whitebark Pine seeds its principle food. This bird has a special relationship with Whitebark Pines, and is the chief promulgator of the Whitebark Pine species throughout its wide range.
Clark’s Nutcrackers greedily collect Whitebark Pine seeds, and then hide the seeds in secret hoards throughout the high country. A forgotten seed stash is where most Whitebark Pine seedlings start life, and is why Whitebark Pines are commonly seen growing clumps of several trees that have originated from a single cache of seeds.
Despite the faithful help of Clark’s Nutcrackers, the Whitebark Pine species is now at a critical turning point. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has found that the Whitebark Pine Tree is in imminent danger of extinction due to a trend of warmer winters that have allowed native mountain pine beetle populations to grow out of control and wreak havoc throughout higher elevations Whitebark Country.
Now is a great time to grow a Whitebark Pine!