Today NRDC filed a formal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to officially classify whitebark pine, a tree found near the tops of mountains throughout western North America, as an endangered species. It’s hard to overstate the importance of whitebark pine to mountain ecosystems.
Like kelp or coral, whitebark pine is a “foundation” species, meaning that both creates and defines an entire ecological community. Whitebark pine seeds are a crucial food source to grizzly bears as well as many smaller species. Many other animals such as elk, deer, and grouse use the trees for shelter. Its branches block wind and prolong snowmelt by providing shade, which greatly influences hydrological processes, among other things reducing flooding. The tree also stabilizes the high-mountain soil, reducing erosion. And the changes created by whitebark pine stands create “microsites” that allow other tress, such as subalpine fir, to colonize upper-elevation habitats.
But a combination of threats: infestation by mountain pine beetles, infection by an invasive fungus known as blister rust, the legacy of fire suppression policies in the West and, most importantly of all, global warming, are swiftly driving white bark pine towards extinction. Indeed, these threats feed off each other. Blister rust weakens trees, making them more susceptible to pine beetle attack, and global warming increases the beetles’ reproductive rate and allows them to spread into previously inhospitable whitebark pine habitats. And while all this is going on global warming is quickly shrinking the range available to the species.
Today’s Petition sets in motion what may be one of the last hopes for the species, as it has been for so many others: the federal Endangered Species Act. Protecting whitebark pine under the Endangered Species Act would have both long-term and immediate benefits for the species. First, it will force the U.S. Forest Service, and other federal agencies, to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding their fire management practices. Second, it will trigger the requirement that essential whitebark pine habitat be given special protections. Finally, it will force the federal government to prepare a recovery plan for whitebark pine.
But the most important thing we can do for the tree is to get a grip on global warming pollution.