Whitebark pine trees, a "foundation species" that grows high in the upper reaches of parks such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, Yosemite, and Kings Canyon, is in need of Endangered Species Act protection from climate change, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A year after being petitioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council to consider ESA protection for the trees due to a warming climate regime, the FWS agrees the trees' existence is threatened.
In a statement (attached below) to be published Tuesday in the Federal Register, the agency says that, "(A)fter review of all available scientific and commercial information, we find that listing P. albicaulis as threatened or endangered is warranted."
However, the statement continues, that listing is "precluded by higher priority actions to amend the Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants."
“The rapid decline of whitebark pine is one of the most dramatic signs of how quickly our mountain ecosystems are warming,” Dr. Sylvia Fallon, lead author of NRDC's listing petition, said in a prepared statement. “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.”
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. 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.
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. Unlike lodgepole pines, which co-evolved with mountain pine beetles and developed defenses against them, whitebark pines did not and so are defenseless against the bugs.
And whitebark pines are slow to reproduce; they can take 75 years of growth before they sprout their first pine cone. Plus, they rely largely on the Clark's nutcracker, which feasts on whitebark seeds, to, basically, plant new whitebark pine stands by caching seeds that later go on to germinate.
According to NRDC officials, the listing decision is the first time the federal government has "clearly pegged" a broadly dispersed tree as a casualty to climate change.
In supporting its decision, the FWS said that by the end of the century "less than 3 percent of currently suitable" whitebark pine habitat is expected to remain as spreading climate change "is expected to significantly decrease the probability of rangewide persistence" of the trees.
On Monday, Louisa Willcox, a senior wildlife advocate for NRDC, said the FWS's decision is proof that climate change is occurring.
“Anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change can look at this decision and the reams of scientific research behind it,” she said. “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.”
While FWS officials said an official listing of whitebark pines as either threatened or endangered is precluded by other species' needs, the agency will have to reexamine the matter in 12 months to determine if resources are available to begin crafting a species recovery plan, NRDC officials said.
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 U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service policies requiring added protections for candidate species potentially very important in the fight to save these trees.