Whitebark pine

B.C. allows logging, mining companies to cut down thousands of endangered trees

Ottawa designated whitebark pine trees as an endangered species seven years ago, but British Columbia continues to sanction logging of the tree by forestry and mining companies

Tens of thousands of some of Canada’s most imperiled trees are being logged in British Columbia despite the federal government listing them as endangered seven years ago.

The companies doing the logging include a major forest company and an international mining giant. None have been ordered to curb their logging activities or faced penalties for doing so.

An investigation by The Narwhal shows that since 2012, the year the federal government formally designated whitebark pine as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, more than 19,000 cubic metres of the trees have been logged in B.C. If those trees were telephone poles, they would string a line from Vancouver nearly 800 kilometres north to Prince George.

Whitebark pine

A healthy whitebark pine tree in British Columbia’s Mount Robson provincial park. Photo: Iain Reid

The amount of whitebark pine logged is tiny compared to B.C.’s total log harvest. But given the dire threats the tree faces, any logging has “extreme” consequences, the federal government says.

The Narwhal used a provincial database to identify the trees. The database shows that since 2012 almost half of the endangered trees were logged by Canadian Forest Products Ltd., B.C.’s largest forest company. Significant numbers of whitebark pine were also logged by Canwell Timber Ltd. and mining giant, Teck.

“To be honest, I find this devastating. Watching a species decline in this province and not doing what we need to to reverse those trends, it really breaks my heart,” says Sally Otto, a biologist at the University of British Columbia and a member of a committee that advises the federal government on species at risk.

Otto noted that nearly three-quarters of the known range of whitebark pine is expected to shift with climate change this century, further increasing the already sobering challenges facing the species.

“Every single patch that we remove is basically removing one possible link from where the trees are now to where they need to be in order to survive,” Otto, who has advocated for stronger action by the provincial government to protect species, told The Narwhal.

Just how many of those patches are removed by logging is a vexing question because the information that is available — including that in the database analyzed by The Narwhal — likely understates the true extent of the losses.

In 2017, the federal government noted that the logging of whitebark pine is “notable” in B.C. and resulted in a “net loss” of the species. The federal government also warned that such logging “is not well tracked as records often group it with other species or ignore it.”

A perverse incentive to log an endangered species

The ongoing logging of whitebark pine in B.C. plays out against the backdrop of a company in Alberta being hit with one of the largest fines ever under the Species at Risk Act.

In 2013, Lake Louise Ski Resort, which operates inside Banff National Park, logged a patch of trees that included 38 healthy whitebark pine. The company subsequently plead guilty to the offence and was fined $2.1 million in 2018 for what Alberta court judge Heather Lamoureux called its “reckless” behavior. The company has appealed the fine that amounts to $55,000 for each whitebark pine tree it logged.

No similar fines have been issued in B.C. for the ongoing logging of the endangered species, however, because few lands within the province’s borders are under direct federal control. The whitebark pine trees that continue to be logged in Canada’s westernmost province typically come down on Crown or public lands that fall under provincial jurisdiction. The federal government has powers to step in to protect endangered species on provincially controlled lands but has rarely done so.

Whitebark pine

Learning the ropes: members of a field crew learn how scale tall trees to collect cones. Photo: Iain Reid

A draft “recovery strategy” for the species prepared by the federal government in 2017 suggests that identifying patches of forest where healthy whitebark pine trees are found and then protecting an additional area up to two kilometres away from the trees may be critical to their survival.

When the federal government formally lists a species as endangered, provinces where the species are found must develop recovery plans. But the time lag between when the federal government lists such species, develops its own recovery plan and receives provincial recovery plans is typically years, during which time much critical habitat may be lost.

“Unfortunately, it’s pretty typical under SARA (the Species at Risk Act) for there to be like a five or 10-year gap,” says Sean Nixon, a lawyer with Ecojustice, who has represented environmental organizations in cases involving endangered species.

“That gap actually gives either the provincial governments or resource companies a perverse incentive to go in and just log the crap out of an area or a species.”

Assault on multiple fronts

Pinus albicaulis or whitebark pine is a slow-growing, five-needled pine tree generally found at higher elevations. One bird species, the Clark’s Nutcracker, is responsible for the natural dispersal of its seeds.

Nutcracker white bark pine

A nutcracker seen in Exshaw, Alta. Photo: H. Loney Dickson

Whitebark pine

A Clark’s nutcracker perches beside seed cones on a healthy whitebark pine tree. Photo: Iain Reid

The primarily gray nutcracker with its black wings and distinct black band down its tail, feeds on the seeds from the tree’s egg-shaped, purple cones. As colder weather approaches, it flies away with the seeds and buries them in small caches, typically within a couple of kilometres of the cones it has harvested, but sometimes more than 30 kilometres away.

Seeds that successfully germinate from those caches can take up to 50 years to produce their first pinecones, and up to 80 years to produce enough cones to lure the nutcrackers back.

But massive numbers of the trees aren’t making it that far due to white pine blister rust, an exotic fungus introduced to North America via China and then Europe and which arrived on the continent around the turn of the 20th century.

The fungus has killed millions of trees in the white pine family that includes the commercially prized western white pine and sugar pine, and the far less commercially attractive whitebark pine and limber pine. The fungus typically attacks trees in the fall. The following spring, the first telltale signs of attack are detected when a tree’s needles develop tiny yellow dots. Eventually, the fungus causes a branch or stem to break, allowing the fungus to enter and kill the tree.

Younger trees are particularly susceptible to attack. The endangered trees also face challenges due to climate change and fire suppression, which has allowed other trees to encroach on their habitat and to outcompete them. Many are also being killed by mountain pine beetles.

While there are literally millions of whitebark pine trees in B.C., current estimates are that perhaps only five per cent of them may survive white pine blister rust, says Sally Aitken, a professor in the department of forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia.

Some regions of the province will likely not be hit as hard as others, Aitken says. But overall, the losses pose huge challenges for scientists struggling to find ways to save species.

Sierra McLane and Sally Aitken

Sierra McLane and Sally Aitken plant whitebark pine seeds in the snow at Blackcomb for an assisted migration experiment.

The best hope to save the trees right now is to look at areas where the fungus has spread and is at its most severe, take seeds from the pinecones of the few survivors, plant the seeds and germinate them in nurseries, inoculate the seedlings with the fungus to see if they are resistant and then plant carefully selected seedlings on the landscape again to see if they survive.

Such work is a costly, laborious process and plays out against the backdrop of far greater numbers of the trees being killed by the fungus or logged.

Maintaining unlogged tracts of forest where healthy numbers of whitebark pine trees are currently found is therefore critical to any meaningful recovery strategy, Aitken says.

“We want to keep whitebark out in those landscapes,” Aitken says. “We want to have a seed source out there. We want to have those trees for the nutcracker and everything else. And hopefully some of those trees can reproduce and establish the next generation that are able to withstand the fungus.”

Aitken says that the ongoing effort to find resistant trees has some prospect for success because the same approach has been used to breed western white pine trees that appear to be resistant to the fungus. Much more effort was made earlier on to work with that species because it has far greater commercial value compared to whitebark pine, Aitken says.

In one of the great insults to the injuries visited upon whitebark pine, Aitken says many of the trees that are cut down are simply wasted because they can’t be turned into anything of value.

“It’s pointless to be cutting these trees down when really they can’t be used for much,” Aitken says.

Iain Reid, who is working on a master’s degree in forest conservation under Aitken’s guidance, has spent parts of the past three years looking at the species. An accomplished photographer, he will spend this summer looking at the trees during his summer work with Parks Canada.

Whitebark pine

Tiny whitebark seedlings growing in a nursery near Salmon Arm may hold key to survival of the endangered species. Photo: Iain Reid

Reid’s academic work is focused on analyzing how the trees respond to being planted in new areas where scientists believe they may be better suited as the climate changes. That includes some trees that have been planted as much as 800 kilometres north of their current range. He also does measurements of seedlings that have been grown from seeds taken from the few lone survivors in forests where either the fungus or beetles have killed the trees.

“It’s quite sad to be in the field. It’s rare to find a healthy tree that doesn’t have pine beetle or blister rust,” Reid says of his work. “They are faced with so many threats. Logging is just an extra one that is so unnecessary.”

B.C. ministry focused on ‘more pressing threats’

In an emailed responses to questions from The Narwhal, Dawn Makarowski, a public affairs officer with B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, said that the ministry is “currently working on an implementation plan” for whitebark pine. The ministry provided no timeline for when such a plan would be completed.

The ministry also said that it has not ordered companies to avoid logging whitebark pine trees and it gave no indication that it intended to issue such orders any time soon.

“Whitebark pine is predominantly a timberline species occurring most commonly above harvestable stands, and it is not considered a commercial species. For that reason, the ministry has not needed to place explicit restrictions on the logging of whitebark pine,” Makarowski wrote, adding: “The province is currently focusing whitebark preservation and conservation efforts on the more pressing threats, including white bark blister rust, mountain pine beetle, fire and climate change.”

Whitebark pine

A whitebark pine shows signs of early attack by the deadly white pine blister rust. Photo: Iain Reid

As to whether logging statistics on whitebark pine are reliable, the ministry said it “has confidence in the data” collected.

The Narwhal also filed questions with the provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. The environment ministry’s answers were then routed through the forests ministry.

The environment ministry declined to answer whether its own staff were working on a recovery plan for whitebark pine and also refused to say whether Environment Minister George Heyman would introduce a provincial endangered species law before the current government’s mandate expires in two years. Heyman is instructed to introduce such a law in his mandate letter.

“B.C. remains committed to putting legislation in place to better protect the biodiversity of our plants, animals and sensitive ecosystems,” the ministry said via Makarowski’s email. “We’re committed to getting it right by fulfilling all due diligence and aligning our efforts across a range of government initiatives and legislation.”

The answers from both ministries left open the prospect that the logging of whitebark pine trees will continue for the foreseeable future.

The approach varies considerably from that in Alberta.

According to the federal government, logging of whitebark pine trees in the province is now strictly prohibited in an area from Waterton Lakes National Park north to Kananaskis Country. Only trees that are deemed “unavoidable” to log will be permitted, and only then if written consent is received from the province’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

The Narwhal also asked questions of Canadian Forest Products and of Teck.

Valerie Wonghen, communications manager at Canadian Forest Products, said by email that the company tries to avoid logging any of the endangered species and that when single or healthy patches of the trees are found they “are painted and GPS’d, so their location can be put on logging maps and they are more visible to loggers, to eliminate the chance of accidental harvest or damage.”

Whitebark pine

It can take 50 years before a whitebark pine tree produces its first pinecone and 80 before it produces cones in healthy numbers. Photo: Iain Reid

Wonghen also noted that the company is “on the lookout” for healthy whitebark pine trees that appear to have survived blister-rust attack and that it has recently planted what it believes to be “blister-rust resistant” seed on some logged areas in the East Kootenay region.

However, Wonghen acknowledged, some whitebark pine trees are logged by the company and unfortunately when they are logged they are of little commercial value.

“It is considered a non-desirable product,” Wonghen wrote. However, she said, “a small amount does end up in our mills. The majority of this volume is non-saw log grades, which is converted into low-grade lumber and pulp chips.”

In a subsequent email, Wonghen also said that the company had received logging permits that predated the listing of whitebark pine as endangered in June of 2012, and that if 2012 was excluded as a “transition period,” the company’s whitebark pine logging total fell to 3,714 cubic metres or roughly one-third of the provincial harvest of the endangered species.

Mining giant Teck also acknowledged logging whitebark pine trees, but said it did its best to avoid doing so.

According to the data analyzed by The Narwhal, Teck logged more than 1,231 cubic metres of whitebark pine trees between 2012 and 2018.

In an emailed response to questions, Chris Stannell, senior communications specialist with Teck Resources Ltd., said the logging was associated with the company’s coal mining operations in the Elk Valley in southeast B.C.

He said that all of the logging occurred under “approved permits” issued by the provincial government and that as part of the company’s “reclamation of former mining areas” it had planted 2,700 whitebark pine seedlings at two of its Elk Valley mining operations.

“We replant whitebark pine equal to or greater than previously harvested,” Stanell said via email, adding: “As part of this ongoing work, Teck has over 70,000 whitebark pine seeds collected from cones in the Elk Valley in storage for future replanting.”

This article was produced in partnership with the Small Change Fund.

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