Final review begins to determine status of whitebark pine

Today is the deadline for comments on Fish and Wildlife’s finding that whitebark pine may qualify as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.  Now they begin a 12 month review of the species’ status before issuing their final decision sometime next year.  In the almost two years since we first submitted our petition to list whitebark pine as endangered, conditions for this tree have only worsened. 

Whitebark pine is an important high elevation species found in western North America that has been suffering  from an introduced fungal pathogen for nearly a century.  In the past two decades, however, a new threat has rapidly accelerated the decline of whitebark pine – the expansion of mountain pine beetles into higher elevations and more northern locations as climate causing milder winters allows them to survive in places they previously could not.  The effects have been devastating.

Some of the recent developments, which I highlighted in my recent comments to the Service, include:

  • The most thorough regional analysis of whitebark pine was recently completed in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and found that over 80% of the area’s whitebark pine was experiencing moderate to high mortality while only 5% appeared to be unaffected. 
  • The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada concluded that whitebark pine is endangered based on estimates that more than 50% of the country’s whitebark pine will be gone in 100 years with some areas experiencing 80-97% decline.
  • Additional research on seed predation and dispersal shows threshold effects suggesting that as whitebark pine declines to a certain point, the tree’s primary seed disperser, Clark’s nutcracker, is likely to abandon areas with few pine cones altogether while red squirrels are likely to consume – and thereby destroy – more seeds.  The ultimate effect of this combination of forces is an acceleration of the tree’s decline.
  • Finally, a recent edition of Forest Pathology summarized the current status of white pine blister rust – the invasive fungal pathogen that has been plaguing whitebark pine for nearly a century.  Among the findings are that 1. ) blister rust is distributed throughout almost the entire range of whitebark pine; 2.) blister rust may be able to adapt to varying climates including warmer, drier ones, and 3.) while other pines are affected by both mountain pine beetles and blister rust, whitebark pine appears to be the most susceptible of its kind.

We urge the Service to act swiftly in assessing the status of whitebark pine.  While the conditions are complicated and the solutions are not simple, we believe that placing whitebark pine on the endangered species list would bring the added resources that this problem needs and deserves.  Scientists both in academia and with the Forest Service have already been working to develop and implement restoration strategies for this imperiled tree in certain regions.  Endangered species status would mandate a range-wide recovery plan and additional agency resources to coordinate and execute a plan that could prevent this important keystone species from going extinct.

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