Losing Our Forests: NRDC Sues to Protect Iconic Whitebark Pine

Unique High Elevation Trees Threatened by Warming Climate

CHICAGO (February 25, 2010) -- The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit yesterday seeking federal action to protect the whitebark pine, an imperiled tree species critical to the health of the high elevation mountain country of the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest. The lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to make a ninety-day finding on NRDC’s petition to list the whitebark pine as an endangered species.

“Within the past few years, certain regions have seen an 80 percent die-off of whitebark pine trees,” said Rebecca Riley, endangered species attorney with NRDC. “This unique and wide-ranging tree is iconic and critical to the American West and it is under attack. The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to move quickly to protect this vanishing species.”

Whitebark pine is found at high elevations throughout western North America, but it is particularly important in the Northern Rockies and high Sierras of California. Threatening these trees is a “perfect storm” of problems, including an unprecedented outbreak of mountain pine beetles due to warming temperatures and the infestation of a non-native fungus, white pine blister rust.

Scientists regard the tree as a “foundation species” because it creates the conditions necessary for other plants and animals to get established in harsh alpine ecosystems. Whitebark pine supports the growth of other plant and tree species, providing habitat, food, and shelter for wildlife such as grizzly bears, squirrels, and many bird species. The tree’s branches block wind and slow snowmelt, regulating spring runoff and providing a steady supply of water for rivers and streams in the critical late summer season. 

“What happens to whitebark pine will have sweeping effects on the entire high mountain forest ecosystems of the Northern Rockies,” said NRDC senior wildlife advocate Louisa Willcox. “Of particular concern is the future of Yellowstone’s threatened grizzly population, which relies on the high-fat seeds of whitebark pine as a primary food source. Fewer whitebark pine seeds lead to higher numbers of grizzly bear deaths and lower reproductive success among females.”

The rate of the whitebark pine tree’s disappearance has increased significantly in recent years and raised concern from the scientific community. Fire suppression, white pine blister rust, and climate-driven mountain pine beetle outbreaks all threaten the ability of the tree to serve its important role in maintaining the health of the ecosystems where it lives.

“Growing at the highest elevations of any trees in the West, the whitebark pine has survived everything nature has to throw at it: lightening strikes, 80 mile an hour winds, rock and ice, and frigid winter temperatures,” said NRDC senior wildlife advocate Louisa Willcox. “But the tragedy is that it may not be able to survive what we are throwing at it now: a warming climate and invasive disease.”

Until recently, harsh winters have helped protect whitebark pine, by keeping mountain pine beetles (which are the size of a grain of rice) at lower elevations, where beetles have coevolved with other pine species such as lodgepole. North America’s high elevation ecosystems are some of the fastest warming areas on the planet. Those warmer winter temperatures have allowed beetles to flourish at higher elevations and vigorously attack whitebark pine, which lack the defenses of lower elevation forests. Additionally, the extreme cold snaps that used to limit the insects’ breeding have not been present for many years. Decades of drought, blister rust, and a non-native invasive fungus species have killed more than 50 percent of whitebark pines in the Northern Rockies over the last four decades. In certain areas, between 80-100 percent of the remaining trees are infected with blister rust or beetles and will die.

“If we fail to take action to protect the whitebark pine, forests across the West will change as we know them,” said Dr. Sylvia Fallon, wildlife biologist with NRDC. “Whitebark pines are just the tip of the melting iceberg--we are going to endanger our treasured wildlife and wild places if we don’t do something quickly.  Fortunately, there is some indication that restoration of this important species may be possible--but we’ll have to act quickly if we are to save these ancient trees from ruin.”  

Endangered Species Act Process

Under the ESA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make an initial assessment of the strength of the petition within ninety days. If the Service finds the petition presents “substantial scientific evidence” that whitebark pine may be endangered, the agency is required to conduct a formal status review of the species and make a final decision about whether to extend endangered species protection within a year. In this case, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has delayed making its initial assessment for more than a year.


Like so many other species, controlling climate change is the best hope for whitebark pine’s long-term survival. Researchers are also cultivating blister rust resistant trees and investigating strategies to combat pine beetle infestations. Listing the whitebark pine as endangered could help recover these forests by protecting critical habitat areas, requiring a plan for restoration and recovery, and changing government forest fire suppression policies in some areas.

NRDC is helping to track and monitor the health of whitebark pine forests through a citizen science program and other research efforts around Yellowstone and is working with the U.S. Forest Service, leading academics, and other organizations to track and monitor the damage in the Northern Rockies. Data on the loss of whitebark pine from mountain pine beetles in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will be released later this year.

Additional Media and Resources

  • Photos and broadcast quality video
  • Additional expert information has been posted on NRDC’s Switchboard blog     
  • NRDC’s report, Hotter and Drier: The West’s Changed Climate.
  • A list of noted academics familiar with this issue is available upon request.