While the US Fish and Wildlife Service stalls, time is running out for whitebark pine

Whitebark pine

Photo courtesy of Jane Partiger of Ecoflight

Over a year ago, we submitted a petition to list whitebark pine as endangered on the Endangered Species List. By law, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to issue an initial determination on whether the petition may be warranted within 90 days of receiving the petition.  If they agree that the species may deserve protection they then have an additional 12 months to make a final determination. 

We are about to pass the combination of both of these time limits, but we have yet to receive any decision by the Service.  Therefore, we are heading to court to ensure that this important and imperiled tree receives the attention that it so badly needs.

Whitebark pine is found in high elevation forests in the western US and Canada and it provides crucial ecological services throughout its ecosystem.  For example, as an early colonizer, whitebark pine creates the conditions that allow other species to colonize and survive an otherwise harsh and largely uninhabitable environment.  By creating wind breaks and providing shade and food, other plants, birds and mammals – from squirrels to grizzly bears - are able to share the high elevation habitat with whitebark pine.  The tree’s roots also stabilize soil and the shade created by its branches helps regulate snowmelt and consequent water run off which moderates stream flows throughout the year.

Unfortunately, whitebark pine is threatened by a combination of factors ranging from fire suppression and an invasive fungus called blister rust to an exploding mountain pine beetle infestation that is being facilitated by the effects of climate change.  Mountain pine beetles are native to the lower elevation forests, but have rarely been able to survive the cold, harsh winters in the whitebark pine’s range.  With a pattern of milder winters, however, the mountain pine beetles have expanded their range up the mountains and easily taken advantage of whitebark pine as a defenseless host species that has already been weakened in many areas by blister rust infections.  The warmer temperatures also have allowed the beetles to reproduce more quickly – adding to the swiftness with which this species is being devastated.

The loss of whitebark pine is happening fast and right before our eyes. While the clock ticks our mountain tops are turning from green, live trees to red, infested trees to gray, dead forests.  And the ripple that this loss will create throughout the ecosystem will be soon to follow.  We need to do everything we can to get whitebark pine the attention and resources that it needs so we can develop a plan to ensure its survival.  The time for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to act is now.

Image: Dying whitebark pine, courtesy of Ecoflight.