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December 30, 2008 4:08 am

NRDC petitions to place whitebark pine on endangered species list

Written by Tribune Staff

Shoshone whitebark pine nut crop dismal this year

Earlier this month, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place the beleaguered whitebark pine on the 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,” said a NRDC news release.

Whitebark pine trees grow near timberline elevations across the West, providing high-protein pine nuts for grizzly bears prior to their winter naps.

In the Shoshone National Forest, the whitebark pine nut crop was dismal this year.

The council says pine nuts are crucial, particularly to female grizzly bears during pre-hibernation days. Without the nuts, grizzlies seek other sources of food, thus increasing human-bear confrontations.

The council fears whitebark pine could become extinct, triggering additional flora and fauna devastation.

“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,” said council senior wildlife advocate Louisa Willcox.

Mountain pine beetle populations have increased dramatically in most stands throughout the West within the past eight to 10 years, infesting more than 1.2 million acres and killing as many as six million five-needle pines, said a 2008 U.S. Forest study titled, “Mountain Pine Beetle Impacts in High-Elevation Five-Needle Pines: Current Trends and Challenges.”

Whitebark is a five-needle tree.

“We anticipate beetle populations will remain high as long as weather conditions are conducive to beetle survival and/or until most mature host trees have been killed,” said the study.

Global warming probably is playing a role, said Brad Eckert, U.S. Forest Service timber management assistant forester in Cody.

Eckert said beetles are most successful during times of drought, when the thirsty trees' defenses are down.

“At the same time, global warming has reduced the frequency of extremely cold temperatures (i.e., 40 degrees below zero) sustained for at least several days, which would historically have killed beetles and limited populations to warmer latitudes and lower elevations,” Eckert said.

More long-term efforts to reduce beetle-caused impacts on these sites are largely undeveloped and unknown, the study said.

The council also is concerned about pine blister rust, and so is the U.S. Forest Service. The study said beetles and rust threaten the sustainability of pine stands.

“The time has come to revisit our whitebark pine restoration strategies,” said Diana Tomback of the University of Colorado, who has a doctorate in biology.

Tomback said blister rust is responsible for serious whitebark pine declines throughout the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada, but pine beetles are killing the trees faster.

Liz Davy, timber program manager in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Jackson, said the service is collecting cones to test for rust-resistance, but it costs $600 to $800 to collect cones from each tree. Then the seeds have to be cultivated in a nursery. Finally, it takes $600 to $1,000 to plant one acre.

Despite efforts to unearth rust-resistant strains from any coniferous species in the forest, the trees still could fall prey to omnipresent beetles.

Davy said there are insecticides to treat trees for mountain pine beetles, but they cost $10 to $15 per tree annually and are labor intensive.

Cold temperatures could kill beetle larvae, or the insects could simply run out of their tree hosts. Davy fears the latter.

“That appears to be what is going on right now,” Davy said.

Davy fears if all the whitebarks are wiped out or if a few survive, it could take hundreds of years to restore the whitebark population, and no other tree can withstand the rigors of near-timberline conditions. The only replacement plants would be grass and forbs.

Whitebarks prevent premature runoff, Davy said.

Placing whitebark pines on the endangered list could have positive and negative results.

Once on the endangered list, whitebarks would receive more public attention, but endangered species are subject to more rules and regulations and could actually hinder rehabilitation efforts.

Davy said whitebarks are not the only victims; beetles are hitting lodgepole pines as well, and dead trees can be seen at all elevations in the forest.

Steps to the endangered species list are the same for plants as animals.

Any group or individual can prepare a petition stating why a species should be listed, such as habitat loss, overuse, disease or predation, inadequate regulatory mechanisms or other reasons.

The petition then is filed with Fish and Wildlife. The service has 90 days to determine if listing is warranted. If it is warranted, the service reviews the species' status for one year. If the service determines the species merits listing, it will seek public comments.

The entire process could take up to three years.

Pine beetles are a native species, but rust is not, Eckert said.

“Large beetle outbreaks have occurred in the past, but this current epidemic combined with blister rust poses an unprecedented threat,” Eckert said.