AWR Blog

Conservation Groups Demand Protection of Whitebark Pine under the Endangered Species Act

Steve Kelly, Alliance for the Wild Rockies (406) 586-4421
Matthew Koehler, WildWest Institute (406) 396-0321

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already concluded that whitebark pine faces numerous threats, including climate change, that are so pressing that whitebark pine is in danger of extinction,” said Mike Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “This is the first time the federal government has declared a widespread tree species in danger of imminent extinction from climate change. Since the Forest Service still has proposals to clearcut whitebark pine, all we’re doing is asking the court to move the listing process along a little faster so we can protect what’s left under the Endangered Species Act.”

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and WildWest Institute filed their lawsuit yesterday in Federal District Court in Missoula against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in response to the FWS’s July 2011 decision that the whitebark pine is “warranted for listing as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act” but precluded by higher priority actions.

As Steve Kelly, Board member of the Alliance explained: “Due to global warming, extreme cold winter temperatures that used to kill bark beetles are no longer occurring, so beetles, along with white pine blister rust, are killing most whitebark pines.”

The plaintiffs are requesting that the Court declare the agency’s decision is contrary to law, set aside or remand the decision, and compel the agency to promptly set a reasonable date to issue a proposed Endangered Species listing rule for whitebark pine.

Whitebark pine is a slow-growing, longed-life tree with life spans up to 500 years and sometimes more than 1000 years. Whitebark pine is a keystone, or foundation, species in western North America where it increases biodiversity and contributes to critical ecosystem functions. Those include providing highly-nutritious seeds for more than 20 different species including Clark’s Nutcracker, grizzly bears, black bears, Steller’s Jay, and Pine Grosbeak.

“People who spend time in the high-country realize that whitebark pine are dying at alarming rates due to impacts associated with climate change,” explained Matthew Koehler, with the WildWest Institute. “We cannot sit back, do nothing, and watch a critically important component of our high-country ecosystem just disappear and go extinct before our eyes. This isn’t just about the whitebark pine, but about the future viability of these high country ecosystems, including the species that rely upon that habitat such as grizzly bears and Clark’s Nutcrackers.”

The role the pine seeds play in the ecosystem is fascinating. Clark’s nutcrackers crack open the pine cones and collect the seeds in specialized throat pouches. The birds then cache the seeds in small piles in numerous shallow holes on the forest floor. If the Clark’s nutcrackers, or other wildlife species, don’t come back to eat all the seeds, new trees sprout. Additionally, red squirrels collect and bury larges caches of whole pine cones in middens. Grizzly bears unearth the caches, carefully pry off the scales of the pine cones with their claws, and then pull out the seeds with their tongues. Studies in the Yellowstone National Park area show that grizzly bears obtain one-quarter to two-thirds of their energy from the seeds. The 30-50% fat content from whitebark pine seeds promotes survival and reproduction of female grizzly bears that rely on this fat not only to hibernate, but also to support lactation. When pine seeds are plentiful, grizzly bears have more surviving cubs. And in years when pine seeds are scarce, the result is more conflicts with humans and more dead grizzly bears.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that climate change will result in the whitebark pine population shrinking to less than 3% of its current U.S. distribution by the end of the century.

“Like the wolverine, polar bear, and a growing number of other species, whitebark pine are being pushed to the brink of extinction by global warming,” Garrity concluded. “Recently released studies determined that last year was the hottest on record in the U.S. at a full degree above long-term averages. It is time we wake up and admit that global warming is the most pressing environmental issue of our time. Our choice is simple: either we start dealing with it now or, unconscionably, we pass on even worse problems to our children and grandchildren.”



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