The US Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to announce tomorrow that endangered species protection for whitebark pine “may be warranted.” This preliminary finding triggers a one year review before a final decision is issued, but is a positive indication that the service agrees that whitebark pine qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Tomorrow’s announcement comes as a result of a lawsuit that NRDC filed earlier this year to compel the government to issue a decision on our petition to list the whitebark pine as endangered. (UPDATE: Here is a link to FWS' press release and the published finding in today's federal register. Public comment is now open until September 20th.)
If listed, whitebark pine will be the first, broadly distributed tree species to be designated as an endangered species. And the consequences of potentially losing this species are tremendous – not just because of its wide distribution throughout western US and Canada, but because of the important role it plays in its ecosystem. As a high-elevation, foundation species, whitebark pine is often the first to colonize the harshest, most inhospitable environments where it provides shade and creates windbreaks allowing other plants to be able to colonize. It is additionally a keystone species – having profound effects throughout its environment by regulating water runoff and stabilizing soil thereby influencing hydrological processes and by supplying food and shelter for many species including birds, squirrels and bears.
Whitebark pine is currently suffering from a combination of threats that have been exacerbated by climate change. An invasive fungus called blister rust has slowly been weakening whitebark pine over the past century throughout its range. With rising temperatures, mountain pine beetles have been able to survive previously frigid winters and expand their range into higher elevations where whitebark pine has no evolved defenses to the beetles. This, combined with fire suppression practices that have likely contributed to the presence of large, continuous swaths of mature forest stands, has allowed the beetles to move swiftly through whitebark pine territory leaving a sea of dead trees in their wake.
Photo courtesy of Jane Partiger of Ecoflight
While the issues are complex and sometimes even daunting, only a coordinated effort that mobilizes resources and research efforts to address the threats to whitebark pine will be able to meet the task. Such an effort could step up current restoration efforts as well as identify and protect key refugia areas for trees that are free of disease and beetle infestation, for example. And resources should be dedicated to on-going research efforts to combat the mountain pine beetle outbreak within the range of whitebark pine.
Recently, Canada’s scientific advisory group on endangered species (COSEWIC) recommended whitebark pine be added to Canada’s Species At Risk Act. Tomorrow's decision by US Fish and Wildlife is a similar acknowledgement that whitebark pine is in trouble. Both of these announcements are welcome news, however they are only first steps. Now Canada and the US must move quickly to finalize their decisions and enact endangered species protections for this important, widely distributed, keystone species.