The Ghosts of Whitebark Pine

Today, the Endangered Species Coalition released its annual Top 10 report – this year’s theme is Vanishing Wildlife:  the top 10 species our children may never see.  Among the species in their report is whitebark pine – the high-elevation pine tree in the western U.S. that is threatened with extinction from a combination of factors, including an invasive fungus called blister rust and a climate-driven infestation of mountain pine beetles.  This important foundational tree – that helps create the conditions that allow other plants and animals to occupy the harsh high-elevation habitat – could be gone by the end of the century.

Entire mountainscapes that once glowed green first turned red as the trees began to die and now stand gray as all of their needles have fallen.  In some areas, all that is left are ghosts of trees that once blanketed the northern Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest forests.  The loss of whitebark pine has the potential to affect its entire ecosystem, as whitebark pine provides food and shelter to all kinds of critters and shades the winter snowpack for later in the spring.  In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, whitebark pine has been an important food source for grizzly bears – providing a high fat food source that keeps them up high in the mountains – out of harm’s way – in the late summer and fall.

         whitebark pine forest

Because of their important role in the West, NRDC has long worked to highlight the decline of this little known tree.  In 2008 and 2009, NRDC collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service to fund a groundbreaking study surveying the status of whitebark pine mortality throughout the entire 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that documented and mapped their widespread mortality.  And in 2011, in response to a petition filed by NRDC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that whitebark pine is endangered throughout its range and placed it as a candidate for the Endangered Species List.

But in spite of the grim circumstances, there are actions that can be taken now to give whitebark pine a fighting chance for survival.  Scientists have developed a number of restoration techniques that will help buy some time for whitebark pine.  For example, researchers have found that some trees have natural resistance to the blister rust fungus and have begun propagating these resistant seedlings for use in restoration efforts.  Additionally, because of fire suppression practices over the last several decades, some whitebark pine are being encroached upon by other types of vegetation.  By removing these competitors through a process called ‘daylighting,’ still-healthy whitebark pine will be able to thrive longer. 

Of course the ultimate threat to whitebark pine is a warming climate, and, until we can curb climate change, whitebark pine will continue to face an uncertain future.  For now, however, these various restoration techniques offer promise for this threatened tree.   Several projects are already underway throughout different parts of the whitebark’s range.  How successful these efforts will be remains to be see, but, at the very least, they provide hope that whitebark pine could be one of the vanishing species that hangs on for our children to see.

Photo courtesy of Jane Partiger of Ecoflight

About the Authors

Sylvia Fallon

Senior Director, Wildlife Division, Nature Program

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