It was more than a year ago when the Natural Resources Defense Council asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see if the whitebark pine, a "stone" pine that grows in the very highest reaches of Yellowstone, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, was eligible for Endangered Species Act protection. Inaction by the agency has prompted the conservation group to sue it to act on the request.
NRDC attorneys filed the lawsuit Wednesday, arguing that Fish and Wildlife officials failed to produce a 90-day "finding" on whether the trees merited ESA protection.
Whitebark pines are high-elevation pines that produce a calorie-rich nut that grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem like to feast on in the fall. It's a nut that also feeds red squirrels and the Clark's nutcracker. The sheer stature of the tree also helps maintain watersheds. In winter its bulk serves as natural snow fences, and in spring that same bulk helps shield the resulting snowbanks from the sun, thus allowing for a relatively slow and even snow melt.
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. But the tree is in danger these days from non-native diseases, such as blister rust, and insects such as the mountain pine beetle, which are beginning to flourish in the trees' habitat thanks to climate change.
“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.”
According to Louisa Willcox, NRDC's senior wildlife advocate based in Montana, "What happens to whitebark pine will have sweeping effects on the entire high mountain forest ecosystems of the Northern Rockies. 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, according to NRDC. 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: lightning strikes, 80 mile-an-hour winds, rock and ice, and frigid winter temperatures,” said Ms. 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.”
While mountain pine beetle infestations are not uncommon in western forests, global warming has only recently allowed them to reach high-elevation whitebark pine forests where the trees have not evolved defenses against the beetles. 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.
According to NRDC, North America’s high-elevation ecosystems are some of the fastest-warming areas on the planet and 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.”
Under the ESA, the Fish and Wildlife Service must make an initial assessment of the strength of the NRDC's petition within 90 days. If the agency finds the petition presents “substantial scientific evidence” that whitebark pine might 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, according to NRDC.