Conserving Imperiled Whitebark Pine and Clark’s Nutcrackers Across the Pacific Northwest

Gray and black bird at the top of a pine tree with a seed in its beak
Clark's nutcracker plucking whitebark pine seeds from a cone. Whitebark pine seedlings sprout almost exclusively from Clark's nutcracker seed caches.

Teresa Lorenz

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is an obligate mutualist of Clark's nutcrackers (Nucifraga columbiana) because its seedlings sprout almost exclusively from Clark's nutcracker seed caches. Currently, whitebark pine is rapidly disappearing range-wide, and as of 2015, 51% and 64% of the remaining live whitebark pines were infected by blister rust in North Cascades and Mt. Rainier National Parks, respectively. This high mortality may seriously reduce biodiversity and disrupt many species interactions.

Recent surveys suggest Clark’s nutcrackers are also declining in Washington’s national parks. Due to continuing decline of these species, it is essential to ascertain whether standard whitebark pine management techniques, such as planting and thinning, are adequate, or if there needs to be an increased focus on management of Clark’s nutcrackers, and/or of a mosaic of ecosystems surrounding whitebark pine habitat. A downward trend in Clark’s nutcracker populations would have reciprocal effects for whitebark pine population regeneration, and consequently for the viability of subalpine ecosystems in the western U.S. To sustain whitebark pine communities and subalpine ecosystems, Clark’s nutcracker populations must be maintained. This requires information on landscape scale space use in Clark’s nutcrackers.

Map with a cluster of points representing five days of a Clark's nutcracker's movements
Because of this, we began satellite-tracking seven Clark's nutcrackers in the North Cascades in 2018. This is a continuation of the long-term research project in which seven Clark’s nutcrackers were satellite-tagged in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in fall 2014, and is the only attempt in North America to satellite-tag nutcrackers. Information on landscape scale space use will increase understanding of how local nutcrackers track resources, how they move over the larger landscape, and how long they stay in habitats of different type and quality. It will also tell us how these behaviors compare between nutcrackers in northwest Wyoming and northern Washington.
Clark's nutcracker with four colored leg bands, two on each leg
Clark's nutcracker

Taza Schaming

Additionally, because Clark's nutcrackers are highly mobile, facultative migrants, it is difficult to accurately monitor local population trends. A better understanding of associations between movement and habitat health allows for more accurate predictions of Clark's nutcracker metapopulation stability and resilience of the Clark's nutcracker-whitebark pine mutualism. Understanding Clark's nutcracker movement patterns from different regions is critical for designing effective local and range-wide conservation strategies.

For More Information

Taza Schaming, PhD
Cornell University

Jason Ransom, PhD
National Park Service

Last updated: May 14, 2018