Climate change endangers whitebark pine in western Canada

Whitebark pine

Photo courtesy of Jane Partiger of Ecoflight

Yesterday the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) announced that it has determined whitebark pine – a high elevation pine found throughout much of the western US and Canada – is endangered throughout its Canadian range due to a combination of factors including climate change.  COSEWIC is the scientific advisory council that makes recommendations to Canada’s government regarding which species should be added to the country’s Species At Risk Act (SARA) – the Canadian equivalent of the US Endangered Species Act.  This news supports NRDC’s position that whitebark pine is endangered through its entire range and deserves US protection as well.  

The scientific committee concluded,

This long-lived, five-needled pine is restricted in Canada to high elevations in the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta. White Pine Blister Rust alone is projected to cause a decline of more than 50% over a 100 year time period. The effects of Mountain Pine Beetle, climate change, and fire exclusion will increase the decline rate further. Likely, none of the causes of decline can be reversed. The lack of potential for rescue effect, life history traits such as delayed age at maturity, low dispersal rate, and reliance on dispersal agents all contribute to placing this species at high risk of extirpation in Canada.”

Sadly, these same conditions hold true in the US which is why we petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to add whitebark pine to the Endangered Species List over a year ago.  We are still awaiting the Service’s preliminary finding which has been so delayed that we have gone to court to facilitate their response.  Yesterday’s announcement is an added reminder of the dire condition this species – which has profound effects throughout its ecosystem – is in.

As the COSEWIC conclusion points out, the future for whitebark pine is indeed grim.  However, the added attention and resources that endangered species protections would bring – including the development of a recovery plan and research into different approaches to dealing with the threats of blister rust and mountain pine beetles – could help slow the pines’ decline or protect refuge areas that have yet to be affected.  We hope the Service will quickly follow COSEWIC’s lead and conclude that whitebark pine qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

For more on NRDC’s efforts with whitebark pine, see here.

Image: Dying whitebark pine, courtesy of Ecoflight.