Whitebark Pine Trees May Depend on ‘Assisted Migration’ for Survival Against Climate Change

whitebark pine trees photo

Whitebark pine trees are typically found in cold , windy, high elevations. They’re a stress tolerant tree that survives where other pines cannot.

Distributed among coastal mountain ranges from central California to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia and in the Rocky Mountains from Idaho to Montana, Wyoming, and Alberta, this hearty tree is under threat as a result of a lethal fungus and the gluttonous mountain pine beetle.

But the biggest killer, according to the Forest Service, is global climate change which will result in a 97 percent decimation of whitebark pine trees in the U.S. by 2100. In an effort to stave off the pine tree’s destruction conservation biologists are considering moving the trees to a place where they can survive.

According to The New York Times:

Their plan calls for rebuilding whitebark pine populations by planting seedlings and setting controlled fires. Healthy forests of whitebark pine, they argue, should be better able to withstand climate change. The trees may even spread northward as higher latitudes develop a suitable climate.

Researcher Sally N. Aitken, a geneticist at the University of British Columbia sees potential in the northwest corner of British Columbia because even with climate projections the pine could survive a century down the line. Working with graduate student Sierra McLane, they’ve hiked into the remote area and planted 18,000 trees and seven years later the trees are still growing.

But in order for the trees to survive they depend on a bird called Clark’s nutcrackers to spread seeds, so the birds will also have to be established in the area.

But critics warn that it could be an “expensive failure” and a misuse of finite conservation resources.

“In my mind, employing assisted migration is probably the worst thing we can do with any valuable restoration funds,” said Robert E. Keane, an ecologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station.

He thinks it would make more sense to find a tree that can survive current threats. But whatever ends up happening, one thing is clear, these forests are likely to look very different in the near future.

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