Whitebark Pine: Climate Change Has This Tree in Trouble

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Josh Mogerman, 312-651-7909

Whitebark Pine: Climate Change Has This Tree in Trouble

Groundbreaking new report and ESA listing effort shows Iconic high elevation trees under assault

CHICAGO - A troubling picture of climate change impacts ravaging western North
America is emerging at high elevations where an important species is
rapidly disappearing. This week a groundbreaking report from the Natural
Resources Defense Council and a key Endangered Species List decision
both pointed to growing danger that the whitebark pine tree could become
functionally extinct before the end of this decade, severely impacting
many American and Canadian forests and potentially downstream fisheries
and communities. The new report shows that over 80% of the whitebark
pine forests of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana are already dead or dying.

"The red and grey trees littering the western landscape are a
testament to the fact that North America's forests are under assault,"
said Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for NRDC and one of the
minds behind a new report on whitebark pine mortality in the Greater
Yellowstone Ecosystem. "Climate change is hitting the whitebark pine
hard by allowing mountain pine beetles access to previously inhospitable
forests at higher elevations.  Whitebark, which grows from roughly 8500
feet up to treeline, has never had to fight off a threat like this, and
if we don't act quickly, we could lose this essential tree species."

Whitebark pines can be found from Nevada to British Columbia
(including the high Sierras of California, the ranges throughout the
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Cascades and Olympic Mountains of
Washington state, and beyond). Scientists regard the tree as a
"foundation species" because of its importance in creating the
conditions necessary for other trees, plants and animals to become
established in the harsh alpine ecosystem. Whitebark pine is also
considered a keystone species, because its health is a measure of the
intergrity of the whole high-elevation ecosystem.

Unfortunately for those dependent wildlife species, such as
squirrels, chipmunks, grosbeaks, crossbills, and grizzlies (especially
in Yellowstone) as well as other creatures, 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,
particularly now swarming mountain pine beetles, as well as an invasive
nonnative disease, blister rust. The threat of beetles is not uncommon
in western forests at lower elevations, such as lodgepole pine and
Douglas fir, which have coevolved with these native insects.

However, global warming has only recently allowed beetles to
flourish in high-elevation whitebark pine forests, where the trees have
not evolved strong 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 and
allowed them to move upwards to attack the whitebark pines, a number of
which have been made more susceptible due to weakening by blister rust.
The result is the loss of more than half of historical whitebark stands
across their range, with far worse numbers in some areas. In the
eastern portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for example,
whitebark pine forests have been already functionally lost.

Northern Rockies Mortality Report

Whitebark pine forests have been hit particularly hard in the
Northern Rockies. NRDC and the US Forest Service helped fund an
unprecedented aerial survey of the entire 20 million acre Greater
Yellowstone Ecosystem to investigate mortality levels of whitebark pine
throughout the region. A groundbreaking pairing of airplane overflights
with GIS and field-based evaluation techniques have given a new and more
detailed understanding of the impact being felt by the region's
whitebark population. The data was brought together by prominent
academics leading the research team, to map out the beetle carnage and
evaluate the pattern of tree mortality in the region. Released today,
the report shows 82% of the Greater Yellowstone whitebark pine forests
of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana dead or dying (high to medium mortality
rates). The mundane title, Using the Landscape Assessment System
(LAS) to Assess Mountain Pine Beetle-Caused Mortality of Whitebark Pine,
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 2009
belies the explosive results,
which imply that the problem is far worse than had been previously
known. The study was written by prominent experts Wally Macfarlane, Dr.
Jesse Logan and Willie Kern. Based on these data, and considering the
rapid changes, the report authors believe it is likely that whitebark
pine will be functionally extinct in the ecosystem within the next 4-7
years.

The full report is available here.

Endangered Species List

The tree's predicament has not been lost on wildlife
managers. NRDC petitioned to have the tree added to the Endangered
Species list in the United States in 2008. This week, the US Fish and
Wildlife Service put whitebark pine closer to being the first
wide-ranging tree on the list with the decision that the science
outlined in the petition merits further investigation. A final decision
will be made in one year. The Service's press release on this week's
decision is available at http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/pressrel/10-46.htm. The full decision can be found at http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/plants/whitebarkpine/TempFR07192010.pdf

Solutions

An Endangered Species listing would trigger a recovery plan
for the species that would coordinate research and conservation efforts
for the tree. Additionally, it should make more resources available for
research on new tools to keep the threats at bay. Researchers are
already investigating blister rust resistant trees that could be planted
at higher elevations to buy the species time. NRDC is also helping to
track the damage and monitor its effects through a citizen science
program around Yellowstone.

But most importantly, like so many other species, controlling
and reducing global warming pollution is the best hope for whitebark
pine's long-term survival. Comprehensive climate and energy legislation
from Congress is the most important step to protect this species.

"Folks in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming can see the impacts of
climate change right outside their windows," said Willcox. "Whitebark
pines can live for a thousand years in the roughest parts of the
Rockies, but they won't last long if we don't do something about climate
change quickly. And in my neck of the woods, around Yellowstone, if
whitebark pine disappears, they will take a lot of wildlife and wild
places with them. It is a truly scary thought."

Additional Media and Resources

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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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