Tree in Trouble: NRDC Petitions for Whitebark Pine Endangered Status

For Immediate Release

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
Contact: 

Josh Mogerman at 312/780-7424 or jmogerman@nrdc.org

Tree in Trouble: NRDC Petitions for Whitebark Pine Endangered Status

Iconic High Elevation Trees Under Assault Due to Global Warming Threats

CHICAGO - 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.
  

Solutions
 

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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The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.2 million members and online activists, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing.

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