Whitebarks and Clark’s and a curious bear

In our latest newsletter, we celebrate the newest additions to our pod. Plus, reporter Matt Simmons takes us to the mountains of B.C.

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Before we get into this week’s tale of an unlikely love story, we wanted to offer a warm welcome to the more than 300 readers who joined our pod as members this past weekend! Our volunteer-in-chief (aka co-founder’s Emma Gilchrist’s mum — happy belated birthday, Patricia!) is busy getting all your Narwhal toques in the mail. Make sure to send us a picture of you wearing it and we just might feature your Narwhal love story in a future newsletter.

A curious bear got to the camera first.

Northwest B.C. reporter Matt Simmons had tagged along in a helicopter with ecologist Alana Clason to learn more about efforts to save the whitebark pine, Western Canada’s only endangered tree.

Climate change, deforestation, fires, drought and an invasive fungus have all contributed to the decline of the whitebark pine — a keystone species that helps maintain the balance of an entire ecosystem.

But while most trees depend on the wind to spread their seeds, the whitebark needs some help. Enter the intrepid Clark’s nutcracker, which frees the whitebark seeds from cones. But the nutcrackers don’t eat them all. Instead, they save some for later in small ground caches — and the seeds that are left behind can grow into multi-stemmed trees.
Illustration of a Clark's nutcracker with a seed in its beak next to a whitebark pine tree

So when are the birds making ground caches? And how can we help?

That’s where the tracking work comes in. 

Clason was up on a steep mountain slope to check on a camera and audio recorder positioned by a whitebark. Getting a better understanding of how bears, nutcrackers and other critters interact with whitebark can help as conservationists experiment with ways to save the tree.
Photo panel, left to right: small black bear beside a whitebark pine, captured by a camera trap on July 24, 2023, moments before it destroyed the unit; two shots of a blurry bear close-up by the camera.

Matt first got a glimpse into whitebark rescue efforts during a reporting trip with Clason and others in 2020. 

“The story totally captured my imagination,” Matt said. “I only peripherally knew about whitebark pine before, and ever since I’ve become a total nerd about it.”

Matt’s nerdom is on full display in the captivating feature, which dives into the unlikely love story between an endangered tree and the bird that eats its seeds.

Read on below for Matt’s reflections on his reporting — and an unbelievable helicopter journey.

Take care and plant the seeds of change,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience
Arik Ligeti headshot
A whitebark pine tree deep in the mountains of northwest, B.C.

Arik: This line in your story really got me: “The birds and bears may have once been whitebark’s only means of reproducing. But now, humans are part of the process, too. We are just as responsible for its survival as we are for its decline.”

Matt: The story of whitebark is really about the tree’s role in the wider ecosystem and all the fascinating complexities of its connections with other species. When I was doing this story, it just suddenly struck me that while this narrative is really important, it’s only part of the picture. As humans, we tend to set ourselves apart from nature but that’s just not true: we’re part of it.

We’re living through what’s often called the sixth mass extinction event, or Anthropocene extinction. Which is to say, the biodiversity collapse happening all over the world is caused by humans. That means our actions on the planet triggered this collapse and continue to accelerate it, through climate change and other impacts to the natural world, but it also means there are so many opportunities for us all to work to save species. That, to me, is hopeful and inspiring. 

Arik: How do you think about human responsibility — for species survival and decline — when it comes to your reporting?

Matt: I love ecology and have always been drawn to stories about complex ecosystems and really try to be aware of how humans interact with those ecosystems, in both good ways and bad. With this one, the responsibility is being shouldered by all these incredible people doing amazing things to save the tree and its cool little network of species.

I love telling the stories of people who are on the frontlines of that kind of work, whether it’s Indigenous leaders, kids getting involved in citizen science or networks of ecologists dividing their time between the necessary “desk time” and getting out in the field collecting data and restoring habitat.
Two people walk towards a helicopter.

Arik: Tell me about this reporting trip — by chopper? The photos and videos by Facundo Gastiazoro are pretty magnificent.

Matt: Facundo went out for two days. I couldn’t join the first day, to the planting site, because there was no room in the floatplane for me! The other day was seriously unreal. We tagged along with Alana, flying in a heli to a bunch of sites where they’re collecting data and, hopefully at some point, seeds.

At one point, the pilot asked if it was OK with us to take a detour through this crazy range of mountains, massive glaciers spilling down from their peaks. Obviously we said yes! I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the mountains over the years and seen some unbelievably beautiful places. That day was among the best I’ve ever had, in terms of scenery.
Left: former BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen is seen smiling. Right: construction on the Site C dam project.
a red bar

Reporter Sarah Cox remembers a fierce critic of the Site C dam

I was very saddened to learn of the sudden death of Marc Eliesen, the former CEO of BC Hydro. Eliesen, an economist, was a tireless defender of the public interest. In our chats over the years, he never minced words when asked about the controversial Site C dam project under construction in northeast British Columbia. 

Eliesen was at the helm of BC Hydro in the early 1990s when its board of directors decided not to build the dam, in large part due to geotechnical risks. The Site C project’s original budget was “illusionary,” Eliesen told me, accurately predicting the dam would be beset by enormous cost overruns. He was a fierce critic of the B.C. government’s decision to push forward on construction amid mounting geotechnical problems that were kept secret from the public. “A rational person would have said ‘Enough is enough, let’s stop now,’ ” he said in 2021.

Eliesen, also the former CEO of Manitoba Hydro and Ontario Hydro, continued to play an active role in public affairs after what his family referred to as his “alleged retirement.” He seemed to live life to the fullest, and I often spoke with him before or after a day of skiing or other adventures with his wife Robyn. In lieu of flowers, and in remembrance of Eliesen’s life, his family has asked that any donations be made to The Narwhal, The Tyee and the National Observer.

a red bar

This week in The Narwhal

An aerial view of a wetland in the middle of a of an autumn forest with Lake Muskoka in the distance
The $500,000 fight to protect a Muskoka wetland
By Emma McIntosh
Very few of Ontario’s quickly vanishing marshes and swamps are safe from development. A group of citizens managed to preserve one, but they also found deep flaws in the system

View from the ground looking up to treetops
Opinion: Is B.C. finally getting real about protecting nature?
By Arno Kopecky
Aerial view of Elk Valley
These massive B.C. coal mines are about to get a new owner. Why some are worried about Glencore’s record
By Ainslie Cruickshank
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