While most often we hear about fish, bird, or animal species needing Endangered Species Act protection, today a group is asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend that protection to a tree, the whitebark pine.
The tree, known as one of the "stone pines," is a high-elevation pine that produces 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 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.
With those threats chronicles, the Natural Resources Defense Council today asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to work on a recovery plan for whitebark pine.
"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 group said.
According to Dr. Sylvia Fallon, an NRDC researcher who was the lead author on the listing petition, "The whitebark pine is central to many of North America’s mountain ecosystems and its loss would be devastating to our most iconic landscapes. 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.”
NRDC officials say that if the FWS agrees, the 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. Whitebark pine creates the conditions necessary for other plants and animals get established in the harsh alpine ecosystem.
The trees can be found in Nevada, the high Sierras of California, throughout the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. According to the petition, in many parts of its range close to a half of whitebark pine trees are already dead and between 80-100 percent of the remaining trees are infected with blister rust or beetles and eventually will die.
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. 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, blister rust, a fungus that was introduced from England, has killed off more than 50 percent of whitebark pine forests in the Northern Rockies over the last four decades. These factors have resulted in vast swaths of red, dead forest, which can be easily seen from the air in many regions of the United States and Canada. As global warming increases, scientists project that the high elevation habitat on which white bark pine depends will also disappear.
In the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, a substantial loss of whitebark pine could have a dramatic impact on grizzly bears. As the days grow shorter and the temperatures fall, grizzlies spend most of their waking hours trying to pack on the pounds. Whitebark pine nuts are particularly nutritious, and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies seek out squirrel middens piled high with the pine cones to feast on.
Studies in the ecosystem have shown that when there's a good whitebark pine nut crop, sows gorge on them and head into hibernation both fatter and healthier. A key result is that they have larger, and healthier, cub litters than sows who go into hibernation with depleted reserves, according to Louisa Willcox, who has been the Natural Resource Defense Council's Wild Bears Project director since 2003.
"Whitebark pine is the engine that dries the health of this (grizzly) population, and it's in trouble," she said back in August during a visit into the Wind River Range south of Yellowstone and east of Grand Teton to examine the health of the whitebark pine forests.
When cones are scarce, the bears move closer to human communities and recreation areas with predictable results.
“If these trees go, they could take Yellowstone’s grizzlies and a lot of America’s western forests with them,” says Ms. 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.”
Under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service must make an initial assessment of the strength of the Petition within three months. If the FWS 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.
While there are efforts under way to establish a strain of whitebark pine trees resistant to blister rust, there's no good solution to halting the mountain pine beetle, short of very, very cold winters. While a synthetic pheremone has been developed to ward off the beetles, its success has been limited.
NRDC, however, believes 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," said the group.
NRDC is helping to track and monitor the damage through a citizen science program around Yellowstone.