Pining for Protection: Feds Agree Widespread Tree Species Likely to Go Extinct Because of Climate Change

Fish & Wildlife Service ESA listing decision agrees iconic high elevation Whitebark Pine trees under assault due to climate change

CHICAGO (July 18, 2011) – In response to a petition the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) the US Fish & Wildlife Service agreed that the whitebark pine, a wide-ranging species of tree found on mountain tops in much of western North America, faces an “imminent” risk of extinction brought on by climate change. The “warranted but precluded” decision acknowledges that climate change is driving the tree species to the brink, but the Service’s limited budget prevents adding whitebark to the federal endangered species list at this time. A recent study shows 80% of the whitebark pine forests in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are already dead or dying; similar declines have been observed in other parts of its range.  Last year the Canadian government declared the tree endangered throughout its range.

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is being decimated throughout its range by an array of threats that have emerged in high elevation environments as a result of climate change. Researchers worry that the trees’ disappearance could leave huge holes in some of the continent’s most iconic landscapes and eliminate a crucial food source for wildlife, including Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. 

“The rapid decline of whitebark pine is one of the most dramatic signs of how quickly our mountain ecosystems are warming,” said NRDC’s Dr. Sylvia Fallon, lead author of the petition “There are things we can do to buoy these trees and the ecosystems that depend on them for a while---but we have to get to the hard work of dealing with the underlying climate issue before a host of other species join whitebark on the long, hot march to extinction.”

The decision means that whitebark pine is the first broadly dispersed tree that the federal government has clearly pegged as a climate casualty. Scientists regard the tree as a “foundation species” because of its importance as a pioneer 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.

The tree faces an invasive disease and voracious insects that had never 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 -- and FWS notes could infect all whitebark pine by 2013. 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.

Today’s FWS decision notes that, “Climate change is expected to significantly decrease the probability of rangewide persistence of Pinus albicaulis… At the end of the century, less than 3 percent of currently suitable habitat is expected to remain…The above studies all suggest that the area currently occupied by P. albicaulis will be severely reduced in the foreseeable future.”

“Anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change can look at this decision and the reams of scientific research behind it,” said Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for NRDC. “The masses of grey and red trees that litter the forests above my home in Montana are a testament to the damage already being wreaked on our high-elevation ecosystems. This designation will help bring attention to saving these tough trees and the long list of species, like Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, that are reliant on them to live in this harsh environment.”

Endangered Species Act Process

The Service's "warranted but precluded" decision means that the tree's status will be revisited in 12 months to determine if resources are available to begin generating a species recovery plan which would outline goals and tactics for protecting and recovering whitebark pine.

In the meantime, it will be considered a “candidate species” which affords some important protections. According to FWS, approximately 96 percent of land where the species occurs is federally owned or managed, making Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service policies requiring added protections for candidate species potentially very important in the fight to save these trees.

The Service has given the species the highest possible priority, which bodes well for its listing when budget becomes available. Unfortunately, funding for the management of the Endangered Species Act has become mired in a political fight in Washington, DC recently, adding yet another threat for whitebark and the nation’s iconic landscapes which rely on the tree.


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. NRDC is helping to track and monitor the damage through a citizen science program around Yellowstone.

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