Five-needle Pine Citizen Science Monitoring Project

Leveraging citizen science to support long-term monitoring of five-needle pines in the North Cascade mountains.
Whitebark branches and needles near Cutthroat Pass, North Cascade Mountains, Washington.


High elevation five-needle pines in decline across western North America. This project will develop a pilot citizen science 5-needle pine long-term monitoring program in the North Cascade mountains to collect data to assess the status and trends of 5-needle pines.

How you can help

Are you interested in conservation and want to make a difference? If so, please consider volunteering for the 5-needle Pine Citizen Science Monitoring Program at Cutthroat Pass in the North Cascade Mountains of north-central Washington.

This pilot project will focus on developing a long-term monitoring program in the North Cascade mountains to collect data and assess the status and trends of five-needle pines. The field work will occur on July 1-2, 2023. A 2–3 hour training session is planned in June 2023 in a forested environment near Winthrop, WA (exact date TBD). We are looking for 4–6 volunteers to assist with field work. Interested parties should fill out the contact form here: Five-needle Pine Project Contact Information

PLEASE NOTE: Volunteers will be required to sign a liability waiver in order to participate. Also, the field work component of this project will require hiking in rugged mountainous terrain, working in potentially inclement weather for 8-10 hours per day for 2 days, and carrying a day pack (approx. 20 lbs).

Read more about the project in my recent interview with the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation here:

This project recently was awarded funding through a modest grant from the Washington Native Plant Society

Additional Information


Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), a high-elevation 5-needle pine found across western North America including Washington State, was recently listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (USFWS 2022). Whitebark pine is a keystone species in the subalpine

Five-needle Pine Citizen Science Monitoring
Figure 1. Forest Inventory and Analysis Plot Layout. Figure from the Pacific Northwest Research Station at

ecosystems where it occurs, meaning other species in an ecosystem largely depend on it to such a degree that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically. The threats to whitebark pine are many, and include pests and disease, climate change, and wildfire. Other species of five-needle pines are also in decline across western North America. For instance,  Goeking and Windmuller-Campione (2021) in their assessment of 5-needles pines throughout the western United States found that both whitebark and limber pine (P. flexilis) exhibited increased levels of mortality that are occurring faster than growth of surviving trees. Similarly, western white pine (P. monticola), another pine native to Washington State, is also in decline due to a combination of pests and pathogens, fire suppression, and logging (Mee-Sook et al. 2011).

Whitebark pine cone on a tree near Cutthroat Pass, North Cascade Mountains, WA.

The recent threatened listing of whitebark pine, and the decline in other 5-needle pines, highlights the urgent need for data on the location and status of 5-needle pine populations across western North America. Most federal and state land management agencies have programs in place to capture data on forests. For instance, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) is a long-term monitoring program that provides the information needed to assess America’s forests. However, crowd-sourced data from citizen science projects is emerging as an important supplemental source of information for conservation and biodiversity research (de Sherbinin et al. 2021).

Citizen science is when the public, both scientists and non-scientists, voluntarily contributes to scientific research. Advantages of citizen science data are that the data are freely available, infrastructure is in place to store the observations (e.g., iNaturalist), and because the data are crowd-sourced, the volume of data that can be obtained is limited only by the awareness and willingness of people to participate. Additionally, participants in citizen science projects gain an appreciation for the subject matter of a given study and feel a sense of involvement thereby increasing awareness and advocacy. The disadvantages of citizen science data are that the quality of the observations are often lacking, and the observations are unstructured, meaning that they don’t follow a statistically rigorous study design, and they are often skewed spatially towards roads and trails (i.e., easy access areas).

To leverage the power of citizen science while minimizing the downsides for gathering information of 5-needle pines I propose a three-pronged approach of outreach, education, and engagement. To address outreach I started the The Whitebark Pine Project website which includes a compilation of information and resources to raise awareness of 5-needle pines. To address education I’ve included citizen science best practices, a 5-needle pine identification guide, and descriptions of 5-needle pines to the The Whitebark Pine project website. To increase engagement I recently completed a pilot study using citizen science data to map whitebark pine outside the published range across Canada and the United States. The purpose of the pilot study was to demonstrate the utility of citizen science data for biodiversity science and conservation. These data are an important supplement to resource inventories by government agencies and conservation groups.

To increase engagement in 5-needle pine citizen science in Washington State I propose to design and implement a citizen science monitoring program in the North Cascade mountains to collect data to assess the status and trends of 5-needle pines. The project will provide baseline data for a small area of the North Cascade mountains and serve the broader purpose of a proof-of-concept for a citizen science monitoring program that could be scaled up to the entire range of whitebark pine. This project will provide a model for the development of similar citizen science monitoring programs across the western U.S. by local groups led by local “ambassadors” in collaboration with state native plant societies and the U.S. Forest Service.

The specific objectives of this project are to:

  • Perform local communities outreach and education, and recruitment of volunteers to support the data collection;
  • Prepare a statistically-robust study design (e.g., stratified-random sample);
  • Develop and test field methods for collecting monitoring data on 5-needle pine populations that dovetail with the USFS FIA methods; and
  • Collect and report on the monitoring data.

The mission of the Washington Native Plant Society (WNPS) is to promote the appreciation and conservation of Washington’s native plants and their habitats through study, education and advocacy. This project is significant with respect to the WNPS mission in that it will be designed to study a threatened Washington native plant, educate volunteers involved in the data collection regarding 5-needle pine identification and ecology, and advocate for Washington native plants by raising awareness of the threats to whitebark pine and other 5-needle pines.

Outreach and Education

To address outreach I will work with the Okanogan WNPS chapter and local conservation groups to engage with their broad member bases through email campaigns and social media. I’ve also worked with Dana Visalli, Vice-chair publisher of the quarterly journal “Methow Naturalist”, to publish a short project description and call to action asking for volunteers to participate in the 5-needle pine citizen science monitoring program. Throughout the outreach stage I will offer opportunities to join the team of citizen scientists that will implement the monitoring field work, including a project ambassador who is willing to take on additional duties, such as leading a field team.

Western white pine (Pinus monticola), another 5-needle pine that occurs in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State.

To address education I will host a webinar in May or June of 2023 that provides information on 5-needle pine ecology, identification, threats, and the 5-needle pine monitoring program, including an introduction to the methods. Next, in June 2023 I will host a field training in Winthrop, WA to get the crews trained on the monitoring methods.

Study Design and Monitoring Methods

I will prepare a stratified, random study design by first mapping the land cover types in the watershed immediately surrounding Cutthroat Pass, an approximately 4,300 acre area. Vegetation types will be aggregated into upland forest and woodland, wetland/riparian forest, wetland/riparian non-forest, alpine tundra, partially vegetated, rock outcrop, snow, and water. We will use the vegetation map to limit the stratification to upland forest and woodland vegetation, and stratify on terrain attributes from a digital elevation model and derivatives, including elevation and slope gradient and aspect. Each plot will be assigned a random number between 1 and the number of plots that will serve as a priority ranking for sampling. I will review the initial results of the stratified sample against a slope gradient map and other GIS layers to assess the safety of each plot. Plots placed in extremely steep areas (e.g., >50% slope) and other unsafe areas (e.g., sites requiring traversing extremely steep areas to access) will be removed from the sample. The remaining plots will represent the sample population. I will target 6-8 plots for sampling in 2023 using the priority ranking to determine which plots are sampled. The total number of plots sampled will depend on the number of volunteers available to perform the work.

The field methods will follow a reduced version of the USFS FIA methods (USFS 2022). The purpose of paralleling the FIA methods is to ensure that the data collected could be used in the future to supplement FIA plot data for those attributes included in the reduced plot protocols. The FIA plot layout is provided in Figure 1. The data attributes that will be recorded at each plot will include those that are central to the FIA method, but pared down to those that are reasonable for non-scientists and amateur botanists to record with basic training. The field protocols will include collecting data on general plot and environmental attributes, including latitude/longitude (including accuracy), sampling date, elevation, and slope aspect and gradient, and vegetation data attributes. Vegetation data attributes will include tree mensuration data (e.g., diameter at breast height) and stem counts, dominant plant species in each lifeform layer (e.g. shrubs), presence/absence of secondary hosts (e.g., Ribes spp.) of white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), and optionally a complete plant species list. In addition, observations of tree mortality or damage, and evidence of pest and pathogens will also be recorded. Representative site photos will be taken at each plot, and photos of all trees and dominant plant species will be taken and uploaded to iNaturalist. All sampling will be non-destructive and no permanent markers will be left in the field. The final field protocols will be determined in May and June 2023 following consultation with the USFS FIA and Forest Health Monitoring teams.

Data Collection

The field team will consist of two teams of 2-4 people each. One team will be led by the PI, and the other by the project ambassador. The field data will be recorded using a digital form on a tablet, and photos will be taken on smartphones. The digital form will be developed using Fulcrum, an online application for creating custom data forms for paperless offline data collection ( that requires a monthly subscription. To reduce costs, following the field effort the data in Fulcrum will be exported and saved to a PostgreSQL database. Digital data collection is an important component of this project because it will save time transcribing data from paper field forms into a database. It will simplify data collection and improve data quality by including drop-down menus for categorical data attributes. In addition, if this monitoring program is expanded to other areas in the future, digital data collection will allow data from across survey areas to be readily incorporated into a single database.

Literature Cited

de Sherbinin A., A. Bowser, T-R Chuang, C. Cooper, F. Danielsen, R. Edmunds, P. Elias, E. Faustman, C. Hultquist, R. Mondardini, I. Popescu, A. Shonowo, and K. Sivakumar. 2021. The Critical Importance of Citizen Science Data. Frontiers in Climate. 3:650760. doi: 10.3389/fclim.2021.650760

Goeking S.A. and M.A. Windmuller-Campione. 2021. Comparative species assessments of five-needle pines throughout the western United States. Forest Ecology and Management. 496: 119438.

Mee-Sook K., B.A. Richardson, G.I. McDonald, and N.B. Klopfenstein. 2011. Genetic diversity and structure of western white pine (Pinus monticola) in North America: a baseline study for conservation, restoration, and addressing impacts of climate change. Tree Genetics & Genomes (2011) 7:11–21.

USFS (U.S. Forest Service). 2022. Volume 1: Field Data Collection Procedures. Forest Inventory and Analysis Resource Monitoring and Assessment Program. Pacific Northwest Research Station. 562 p.USFWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). 2022. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Threatened Species Status With Section 4(d) Rule for Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis), 87 FR 76882 (effective January 17, 2023). 50 CFR 17. Available on-line:

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