The blooming of Mount Rainier's gorgeous wildflower meadows is inextricably tied to the amount of snow on the ground. When snow melts earlier, flowers bloom earlier. “Peak bloom”, when a large variety of wildflowers bloom simultaneously, could disappear in a future with earlier snow melt. Researchers have already seen shifts in timing so that meadow species that didn't bloom together now do. This could have significant effects on pollinators and the ability for young plants to grow, but it also means that we may be moving toward a time in which the 20-species-blooming-at-once-in-Paradise pictures are no longer possible.
Cascades Butterfly Project: Monitoring Subalpine Butterflies as Climate Changes
Whitebark pine is a long-lived tree species who can live as large trees in the Sunrise Area and stunted krummholz trees in the alpine regions of the park. Whitebark pines grow where many other species cannot. But they grow slowly, and as their habitat warms and snow melts earlier, other tree species can start to outcompete them. Whitebark pine is a proposed threatened tree species under the Endangered Species Act that has experienced over 60% mortality at Mount Rainier National Park due to an introduced fungus, white pine blister rust. The effects of the rust infection seem to be worse in warmer conditions.
Whitebark pine is a high elevation species important to subalpine and alpine communities. Their seeds are a food source for wildlife, especially the Clark's nutcracker, a bird that breaks open the hard pine cones and caches the seeds away for future snacking. Whitebark pine is a masting species, meaning most individual trees produce their cones only every few years and all at once. 2021 was masting year at Mount Rainier and throughout the northwest. It takes two years for the cones to develop, so the seeds and cones developing in 2021 were actually fertilized in 2020 and overwintered on the trees.
Mount Rainier National Park, in partnership with the US Forest Service’s Forest Health Protection Division, collected seeds from Mount Rainier trees in summer 2021 for restoration and screening for fungal resistance. However, the developing cones must be caged to stop nutcrackers from breaking them all open and eating the seeds. In the Sunrise, Hidden Lake, and Summerland areas of the park, rectangular wire cages were used to cover cones on some of the whitebark pine branches. Lots of cones were left for nutcrackers and squirrels and the cages don't harm the trees. Once collected, some of the seeds were sent away to a US Forest Service lab so that they could be screened for genetic resistance to the white pine blister rust, important knowledge for conservation and planning for future restoration. Other cones, like those collected at Sunrise, will be used for restoration because many of the largest cone bearing trees there are already known to be very resistant to rust and are good source trees for seeds.
Last updated: October 1, 2021