U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials announced Tuesday that the agency will take a longer, more extensive look at whether whitebark pine trees, a key food source for some grizzly bear populations as well as birds and squirrels, need protection under the Endangered Species Act.
In a notice published in the Federal Register the agency acknowledged that substantial scientific and commercial information indicates that such a listing is merited.
Whitebark pines are a member of the "stone" pine family. It grows in the very highest reaches of Yellowstone, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. These high-elevation trees 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.
Back in February the Natural Resource Defense Council sued the Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to act on a year-old request that ESA protection be bestowed on the pines. At that time, Louisa Willcox, NRDC's senior wildlife advocate based in Montana, said that "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.
Under its announcement Tuesday, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to conduct a year-long review of scientific and commercial information on the species. Here is a summary of the ruling:
We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announce a 90-day finding on a petition to list Pinus albicaulis (whitebark pine) as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended and to designate critical habitat. Based on our review, we find that the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing P. albicaulis may be warranted. Therefore, with the publication of this notice, we are initiating a review of the status of the species to determine if listing P. albicaulis is warranted. To ensure that this status review is comprehensive, we are requesting scientific and commercial data and other information regarding this species. Based on the status review, we will issue a 12-month finding on the petition, which will address whether the petitioned action is warranted, as provided in section 4(b)(3)(B) of the Act.