NRDC Senior Wildlife Advocate Louisa Willcox and leading Canadian author Andrew Nikiforuk hiking above dying and dead whitebark pines in the Gallatin Mountains in Montana last summer.
Whitebark pine trees anchor the high country of the Northern Rockies. They are beautiful, funky, wild trees that eke out a living in a harsh environment (think Montana, 9,000 feet, January). And they’re critically important to the ecological health of the Northern Rockies, particularly the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where Yellowstone grizzlies fatten up before their winter slumber on the whitebark pine’s big, high-calorie, nutritious seeds.
Enter climate change.
With warmer winter temperatures, mountain pine beetles are surviving at higher elevations because the requisite prolonged cold snaps needed to kill the beetles are not occurring. And the beetles are feasting on – and decimating – whitebark pine trees.
A non-native fungus, white pine blister rust, is also having its way with whitebark.
The loss of whitebark pine seeds as a food source for Yellowstone grizzlies will be catastrophic for the iconic bears. Without whitebark pine seeds, the bears won’t be prowling the high country to gorge on whitebark pine seeds in the late summer and fall. They’ll be forced to search for replacement foods at lower elevations, where they’ll be more likely to bump into two-legged critters – and thus more likely to get killed.
Because whitebark pines are dying at a mind-blowingly fast rate, we submitted a petition in December 2008 to list the whitebark pine as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.
Over a year has passed since we filed our petition, yet, in contravention of the law, we’ve heard nothing from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As such, we filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the Service for failing to make a ninety-day finding on our petition.
Time is running out, and the stakes are too high for whitebark pine and the Yellowstone grizz.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must protect whitebark pine under the Endangered Species Act.
(To see my photo essay on whitebark country, click here. To see more of my photos and learn more about whitebark pine and grizzlies, click here, here, and here. And to see blog posts by my NRDC colleagues on whitebark pine, click here.)