Tree in Trouble: NRDC Petitions for Whitebark Pine Endangered Status

Iconic High Elevation Trees under assault due to global warming threats
CHICAGO (December 9, 2008) – In an attempt to save a crucial high-elevation species, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) today petitioned the US Fish & Wildlife Service to add the whitebark pine, a wide-spread species of tree found on mountain tops in western North America, to the federal endangered species list. Whitebark pine forests are being decimated throughout their range by an array of threats that have emerged in high elevation environments as a result of climate change, including swarming insects and an invasive disease. Researchers worry that the trees could be driven to extinction, leaving huge holes in some of the continent’s most iconic landscapes and eliminating a crucial food sources for wildlife, including grizzly bears. 
“The whitebark pine is central to many of North America’s mountain ecosystems and its loss would be devastating to our most iconic landscapes” said NRDC’s Dr. Sylvia Fallon, lead author of the petition “With help, the tree can be saved. This listing would bring a recovery plan and the resources to advance some of the solutions that are already out there but need more support.”
Whitebark pine would be the first broadly dispersed tree protected by the Endangered Species Act. 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 British Columbia. According to the Petition, in certain parts of its range close to a half of whitebark pine trees are already dead and between 80-100% of the remaining trees are infected with blister rust or beetles and eventually will die.  
The threats facing the tree are not uncommon in western forests. However, global warming has only recently allowed them to reach high elevation whitebark pine forests where the trees have not evolved defenses. Until recently, harsh winters have kept mountain pine beetles (which are the size of a grain of rice) at bay. Warmer temperatures have dramatically increased the beetles’ numbers, allowing them to move upwards to attack the whitebark pine. Many trees were already weakened by 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 white bark pine depends will disappear. These factors have resulted in vast swaths of red, dead forest, which can be easily seen from the air in many regions of the US and Canada.
Grizzly bears
One of the species likely to be most affected as whitebark pine numbers crash is the Yellowstone grizzly bear. In the fall, females rely on whitebark pine nuts as an essential food source. There is a clear correlation between whitebark pine cone crops and human-bear conflicts. In years with a large cone crop, the bears forage at higher elevations. When cones are scarce, the bears move closer to human communities and recreation areas with predictable results. While the bears are omnivores, the pine nuts offer a high calorie food source at a time when little else is available of similar nutritional value. Many researchers have expressed concern over the impact this will have on the future of the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“If these trees go, they could take Yellowstone’s grizzlies and a lot of America’s western forests with them,” said NRDC senior wildlife advocate Louisa Willcox. “If we want to save not just the whitebark pine, but the animals and plants like the grizzly bear that depend on this tree for food, we need to move to protect and restore them now.”
Endangered Species Act Process
Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make an initial assessment of the strength of the Petition within three months. If the Service finds the petition presents “substantial scientific evidence” that whitebark pine are endangered, then the agency is required to conduct a formal status review of the species and make an initial decision about whether to extend endangered species protections to it within a year. The petition is available online.
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 forest suppression policies. 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.
“This petition is another clarion call for action on climate change,” said Fallon. “Whitebark pines are just the tip of the melting iceberg---we are going to lose most of our wildlife and wild places if we don’t do something quickly.”
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