WASHINGTON – The US Fish & Wildlife Service is proposing to list the whitebark pine, a wide-ranging species of tree found on mountain tops in much of western North America, under the Endangered Species Act today in response to a 2008 petition from the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The listing explicitly notes the tree faces an “imminent” risk of extinction brought on, in part, by climate change. At the time of the 2008 petition, studies showed 80% of the whitebark pine forests in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were already dead or dying.
“The listing means that whitebark pine is the first widely distributed tree that the federal government has clearly pegged as a climate casualty—sadly, as climate change worsens, it will not be the last,” said NRDC’s Wildlife Director Sylvia Fallon, who helped author the petition to list the tree. “The whitebark pine’s predicament has been a clear climate change warning that millions of Americans could see from their windows as entire forests turned red and died. This decision further clarifies how dire the situation is not only for this species, but for wildlife globally—and the communities reliant upon it—as the biodiversity crisis deepens.”
Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is being decimated throughout its range by an array of threats. Researchers worry that the trees’ disappearance could leave huge holes in some of the continent’s most iconic landscapes, impact nearby communities, and eliminate a crucial food source for wildlife, including Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.
Scientists regard the tree as a “foundation species” because of its importance as a species that creates the conditions necessary for other plants and animals get established in the harsh alpine ecosystem. The trees’ branches block wind and prolong snowmelt, regulating spring runoff, and reducing the potential for flooding and erosion. The trees can be found in Nevada, the high Sierras of California, throughout the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, and north into the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Alberta.
Whitebark pine has faced an invasive disease and voracious insects that had not previously been able to thrive in cold whitebark territory. While mountain pine beetles are a native insect and not uncommon in western forests, climate change has only recently allowed them to regularly reach high elevation whitebark pine forests, where the trees have not evolved defenses. Rapid warming has limited the long sub-zero cold snaps that have limited beetle reproduction and movement upwards to the high ridgelines where the tree is found.
Additionally, many trees were already weakened by white pine blister rust, an invasive fungus species introduced from England that has expanded its range to kill off more than 50% of whitebark pine forests in the Northern Rockies over the last four decades. As global warming increases, scientist project that the high-elevation habitat on which whitebark pine depends will disappear. These factors have resulted in vast swaths of red or grey, dead forest, which can be easily seen from the air in many regions of the US and Canada.
Researchers are already investigating blister rust resistant trees. Whitebark pine trees can also be helped by protecting its critical habitat, preparing a recovery plan for species, and changing government fire management policies in some areas. Most importantly, like so many other species, controlling and reducing global warming pollution is the best hope for whitebark pine’s long-term survival. In some areas of whitebark pine country, particularly the crown of the continent, the tree has been rendered functionally extinct, though restoration efforts are underway. NGOs like the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation have been working with Academics and the Forest Service to develop a restoration plan which should help inform the recovery effort moving forward.
Last year the United Nations released its Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services evaluating the health of our world’s biodiversity and natural systems. The report warned of the destruction of natural systems we depend on for life and the loss of up to one million species to extinction if drastic mitigation efforts are not taken in the coming years.
NRDC (The Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC