Yellowstone: One of our nation's top 10 endangered ecosystems

Whitebark pine

Photo courtesy of Jane Partiger of Ecoflight

Today the Endangered Species Coalition released their top 10 endangered ecosystems report entitled: It’s Getting Hot Out There: Top 10 Places to Save for Endangered Species in a Warming World.  The report examines ten ecosystems that are home to endangered species and that are currently experiencing the effects of climate change.  This project – which highlights such climate-sensitive areas as arctic sea ice, shallow water coral reefs and the southwest desert – also identifies the Greater Yellowstone region among the top endangered ecosystems. 

Climate has rapidly changed the face of our first national park – home to threatened species such as grizzly bears and gray wolves – as warmer winter temperatures have allowed mountain pine beetles to devastate the high elevation whitebark pine ecosystem, exchanging healthy green pine needles for dead red ones.  In fact, whitebark pine itself – a foundation species that creates the conditions that allow other species to exist in such a harsh environment – is now under consideration for endangered species protections and a recent NRDC study indicated that over 80% of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is experiencing medium to high mortality. 

In addition to providing habitat, food and shelter for a variety of species including elk, red squirrels and Clark’s nutcracker birds, whitebark pine provides additional ecosystem services such as stabilizing soil and slowing water run-off by shading the snow pack.  And of course there is the important relationship between the now imperiled whitebark pine and the already threatened grizzly bear as whitebark pine seeds provide a critical food source just before hibernation.  Not only are whitebark pine seeds fatty enough to sustain the bears through the winter, but they are located at a high elevation – far away from where most conflicts with humans occur. 

As with the other endangered ecosystems in the report, the true solution lies with addressing climate change.  Until then, there are some conservation measures already underway such as the identification of priority restoration areas and research into whether any whitebark pine trees have natural resistance to mountain pine beetles.  There are also some inspirational citizen science projects led by organziations such as NRDC and TreeFight that are helping to document the situation on the ground.  We hope that continued public awareness – such as the publication of this report , citizen efforts and endangered species protections for whitebark pine will bring the added resources and will necessary to find solutions to the threats facing this endangered ecosystem.


Photo credit:  Jane Partiger of Ecoflight