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Whistler’s treeline tragedy

The unfolding drama of a tree, a bird, and a foreign fungus




There’s a drama playing out in our picturesque mountains, with a plot and cast of characters from Ecology 101 as taught by Professor Shakespeare. Here’s a thumbnail sketch.

The co-dependent relationship of a tree and a bird are threatened when they are introduced to a foreigner. The tree, with no knowledge of the dangers of the foreigner’s seductive ways, lowers its defences. The foreigner quickly takes advantage and, in no time, the tree is dealt a mortal blow. The bird is distraught, flying back and forth. It sees the tree’s distress but is powerless to intervene.

The real-life inspiration for the story above is no less dramatic. The real cast? You’ve seen at least a couple of them up near treeline on Whistler or Blackcomb, or on countless peaks east to the Rockies.

Whitebark pine is the tragic hero. It really does have a co-dependent relationship with a bird, the Clark’s Nutcracker. And there really is an evil foreigner in this drama, white pine blister rust. Too bad it’s not suitably swarthy like Shakespeare’s or George W.’s villains. The orange complexion – a dead ringer for Kraft Dinner powder – is hard to launch a war over. But its kill rate makes Al Qaeda look tame.

What follows here is a behind-the-scenes look at the local angle to a real-life drama. It’s the story of a bird, a tree, and a villainous foreign fungus. It has impossibly beautiful vistas, decline and death, and a faint glimmer of hope for rebirth.

The Tree

If you’ve skied or hiked near treeline in Whistler, you’ve no doubt passed whitebark pines. They’re relatively easy to pick out in the crowd of subalpine firs at treeline. Subalpine fir has a thin profile – it’s the classic, conical tree on so many Christmas cards. Whitebark pine looks more like a giant broccoli – it’s the Rubenesque standout in a forest of Paris Hiltons.

In our mountains, whitebark pine is restricted to tough spots right near treeline, usually on sunny sites where other trees succumb to drought. The best place to find a lot of them is on 7th Heaven, but there are also pockets around Crystal Hut, Harmony Ridge, and the south side of Whistler (the Cakehole). East to the Rockies, they are more common and can be a dominant tree in the closed forest.

Whitebark pine is a critical member of the treeline ecosystem – a so-called keystone species. It helps stabilize soils and meter out water more slowly (by slowing melt) but, most importantly, its seeds drive a number of important relationships. The seeds provide a rich source of energy (one half fat, the other half carbohydrates and protein) in an ecosystem where food energy is not abundant. At least three major treeline animals rely on the seeds: Clark’s nutcracker, squirrels, and grizzly bears.