This week brought yet another official recognition that climate change is already undermining America’s beloved landscapes. On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that protecting the whitebark pine under the Endangered Species Act “may be warranted.”
These trees are the anchor of the Rocky Mountain high country and a critical source of food for grizzly bears, yet 51 percent of the whitebark pine forests in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem alone are dead or dying, and climate change is the leading cause.
Fish and Wildlife’s announcement is a good indication that the service agrees whitebark pine qualities for protection.
I welcome this development. I treasure the high country where the whitebark pine lives, especially Greater Yellowstone. When I was nine, I traveled there for the first time from my home in New Jersey, and I fell in love with the mountain landscapes. I have returned many times, and I always leave feeling inspired.
The Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is a testament to America’s great conservation ethic. We can’t stand by and watch these wildlands unravel. We must preserve the species that hold them together.
The whitebark pine tree may not be a household name, but millions of Americans who visit our most popular national parks—Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, and Yosemite—have seen these glorious trees and the vitality they sustain.
Scientists call the whitebark pine a “keystone species” because it creates the conditions for other plants and animals to survive. It is often the only tree hardy enough to withstand the frigid winters that batter high elevations, and its roots hold down soil in the face of blistering winds. Plants grow in that soil, and wildlife can live off the plants.
It also helps regulate snow melt—a precious source of water in the West. The tree’s long shadow keeps snow out of the sun and lets it melt slowly over the course of the spring instead of thawing all at once in an early flood.
But perhaps most important, the whitebark pine helps sustain grizzly bears.
We’ve all seen photos of grizzlies catching fish in mountain streams or grazing on berries in alpine meadows, but come autumn, Yellowstone grizzlies rely almost exclusively on moths and the whitebark pine nuts to bulk themselves up for hibernation. The protein-rich nuts provide grizzlies with fat reserves they will draw from all winter long.
But whitebark pine nuts are becoming harder and harder to find. An invasive fungus called blister rust has been weakening whitebark pine over the past century. Then in the past decade, warmer temperatures brought on by global warming unleashed a scourge of mountain pine beetles. These voracious creatures used to be found only at lower elevations, but with milder winters, they have moved up the mountainside and destroyed whitebark forests throughout the Rockies.
Scientists have observed that when whitebark pine nuts are in short supply, there are higher numbers of grizzly bear deaths and lower rates of reproductive success among females.
Whitebark pines can live for 1,000 years, but beetles kill their tree hosts in order to reproduce. After one season, a whole forest can be reduced to lifeless husks. I have seen the devastating results myself. The last time I was in Yellowstone, I was stunned to see entire mountainsides turned to rusty red by the beetles’ march. Other ridgelines were covered in gray ghosts—trees that beetles had killed a year or two previously.
NRDC just released the first-ever aerial study of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem—20 million acres spread over 21 mountain ranges—to document the scope of the whitebark pine’s demise. Our experts concluded that only 5 percent of whitebark pine forests remained free of unusual levels of mortality caused by mountain pine beetle.
In 2008, NRDC petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to have the whitebark pine protected under the Endangered Species Act, and when it failed to respond, we sued them. The service’s recent announcement shows that it is taking the threat to whitebark pine seriously.