Group seeks protection for whitebark pine

Posted 7/22/10

“The petition finding does not mean that the service has decided it is appropriate to give whitebark pine federal protection under the ESA,” said a Fish and Wildlife Service news release on July 19. “Rather, this finding is the …

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Group seeks protection for whitebark pine


Pine beetles plague ‘important' tree speciesThis week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider listing the beetle-embattled whitebark pine as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, thanks to a December 2008 Natural Resources Defense Council petition.But that does not mean listing is a slam dunk.

“The petition finding does not mean that the service has decided it is appropriate to give whitebark pine federal protection under the ESA,” said a Fish and Wildlife Service news release on July 19. “Rather, this finding is the first step in a long process that triggers a more thorough review of all the biological information available.”

It could take a year for the federal government to decide whether to list whitebark pine and another year to get federal protections underway.

The hardy conifers, which persist along timberline perimeters, are instrumental in easing spring runoff. They yield nuts that are a prime source of protein for squirrels, birds and pre-hibernating grizzly bears.

In the last few years, millions of acres of whitebark pine have been decimated across the Rocky Mountain West due to mountain pine beetles and blister rust, a fungal disease that entered this country from Europe around 100 years ago.

During a conference call Wednesday morning, Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for the council, said 51 percent of the whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is “basically dead.”

Willcox arrived at that conclusion based on an extensive aerial survey funded in part by the council and the U.S. Forest Service. The study was called, “Using the Landscape Assessment System to Assess Mountain Pine Beetle-Caused Mortality of Whitebark Pine, Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 2009.”

Twenty million acres of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were photographed by air and the material studied on the ground.

“Fifty-one percent of whitebark forests by sub-watershed have had high mortality,” Willcox said.

The council said the warming climate change is the most significant threat to the tree, and that in turn heightens the hazard of pine blister rust and mountain pine beetles.

“That (climate) is what is driving the mortality in whitebark pine forests,” Willcox said.

Other conifers have built-in defenses against pine beetles. But whitebark, in its secluded mountain setting, once was protected from beetles by the harsh and cold climate. But it now is suffering the advance of beetles that, thanks to warming trends, are migrating further north and to higher elevations, Willcox said.

“We will be looking outside of our agency for modeling of climate change,” said Ann Belleman, lead biologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service's Cheyenne office.

What is missing from the petition are whitebark rejuvenation, resistance to mountain pine beetles and blister rust, Belleman said.

There is some evidence of isolated whitebark resistance to blister rust. Park and Forest Service personnel are endeavoring to find these trees and collect the seeds. There are only a couple of whitebarks that appear to contain a chemical resistance to beetles, Willcox said.

Belleman, said she could not say this early in the process what sort of federal protections whitebark pine would receive if they accorded federal protections.

“That would be something that would come up in the future, but it is too early to say,” Belleman said.

Federal protections are no guarantee of federal funding, but funding could arrive by means of grants from states, tribes, colleges or private foundations, Belleman said.

An endangered or threatened status would put whitebark pine on the public radar, Belleman said.

Getting the tree listed as endangered would trigger significant financial resources and research, Willcox said.

Belleman said whitebark pine is not well known, nor is it a controversial species because it is not harvested for timber.

However, it is a keystone species, Belleman said.

Belleman said whitebark stabilizes the soil and slows spring runoff.

“Ecologically, it is a very important species,” Belleman said.

Whitebark slows runoff. Without whitebark pines, runoff will be quicker, affecting fisheries and agriculture.

“To ensure this review is comprehensive, the service is soliciting information from state and federal natural resource agencies, Native American tribes, the scientific community, industry and any other interested parties regarding whitebark pine and its habitat,” said a service news release.

The service must reach a decision by July 2011. There are three possible outcomes, she said. They are:

• Federal protections are not warranted;

• Federal protections are warranted but precluded, meaning the trees would be placed on priority list to be addressed in the future; or

• Listing as threatened or endangered is warranted.

In the latter outcome, the service would have another year to make a final rule, Belleman said.

Congress in Washington, D.C. must move forward with legislation addressing climate change, said council member Josh Mogerman.

“This is a climate change issue,” Mogerman said.