Losing Our Forests: NRDC Sues to Protect Iconic Whitebark Pine

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Jessica Lass at 310-434-2300 (main), 202-468-6718

Losing Our Forests: NRDC Sues to Protect Iconic Whitebark Pine

Unique High Elevation Trees Threatened by Warming Climate

CHICAGO - The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit yesterday
seeking federal action to protect the whitebark pine, an imperiled tree
species critical to the health of the high elevation mountain country
of the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest. The lawsuit was filed
against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to make a
ninety-day finding on NRDC's petition to list the whitebark pine as an
endangered species.

"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."

Whitebark pine is found
at high elevations throughout western North America, but it is
particularly important in the Northern Rockies and high Sierras of
California. Threatening these trees is a "perfect storm" of problems,
including an unprecedented outbreak of mountain pine beetles due to
warming temperatures and the infestation of a non-native fungus, white
pine blister rust.

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.
Whitebark pine supports the growth of other plant and tree species,
providing habitat, food, and shelter for wildlife such as grizzly
bears, squirrels, and many bird species. The tree's branches block wind
and slow snowmelt, regulating spring runoff and providing a steady
supply of water for rivers and streams in the critical late summer
season. 

"What happens to whitebark pine will have
sweeping effects on the entire high mountain forest ecosystems of the
Northern Rockies," said NRDC senior wildlife advocate Louisa Willcox.
"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. 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: lightening strikes,
80 mile an hour winds, rock and ice, and frigid winter temperatures,"
said NRDC senior wildlife advocate Louisa 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."

Until recently,
harsh winters have helped protect whitebark pine, by keeping mountain
pine beetles (which are the size of a grain of rice) at lower
elevations, where beetles have coevolved with other pine species such
as lodgepole. North America's high elevation ecosystems are some of the
fastest warming areas on the planet. Those warmer winter temperatures
have allowed beetles to flourish at higher elevations and vigorously
attack whitebark pine, which lack the defenses of lower elevation
forests. Additionally, 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."  

Endangered Species Act Process

Under
the ESA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make an initial
assessment of the strength of the petition within ninety days. If the
Service finds the petition presents "substantial scientific evidence"
that whitebark pine may 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.

Solutions

Like
so many other species, controlling climate change is the best hope for
whitebark pine's long-term survival. Researchers are also cultivating
blister rust resistant trees and investigating strategies to combat
pine beetle infestations. Listing the whitebark pine as endangered
could help recover these forests by protecting critical habitat areas,
requiring a plan for restoration and recovery, and changing government
forest fire suppression policies in some areas.

NRDC is
helping to track and monitor the health of whitebark pine forests
through a citizen science program and other research efforts around
Yellowstone and is working with the U.S. Forest Service, leading
academics, and other organizations to track and monitor the damage in
the Northern Rockies. Data on the loss of whitebark pine from mountain
pine beetles in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will be released
later this year.

Additional Media and Resources

  • Photos and broadcast quality video
  • Additional expert information has been posted on NRDC's Switchboard blog     
  • NRDC's report, Hotter and Drier: The West's Changed Climate.
  • A list of noted academics familiar with this issue is available upon request.
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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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