by Tom Kuglin, Independent Record
Two environmental groups have filed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over the listing of the whitebark pine under the Endangered Species Act.
The WildWest Institute and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed the notice of appeal May 16 over the listing of the whitebark pine as warranted but precluded because of other higher priority listings by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On April 25, a federal district court ruled against the alliance, which sued in July 2011, alleging that whitebark pine would go extinct without the listing under the Endangered Species Act.
“Warranted but precluded is where species go to become extinct without any protection,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
Whitebark pine is the first tree species the federal government has declared in imminent danger of going extinct from climate change, Garrity said.
Whitebark pine grows at high elevations, with lifespans of more than 500 years and some living up to 1,000 years. The tree has declined in recent years from infestations of the mountain pine beetle and white pine blister rust.
The U.S. Forest Service estimates climate change could result in whitebark pine populations shrinking to less than 3 percent of its current range in the United States. The seeds from whitebark pine are critical to the health of alpine ecosystem, where it provides a food source for several species of birds and grizzly bears, the alliance said in a news release.
“We are going to keep fighting to keep whitebark pines from going extinct because Yellowstone grizzly bears are so dependent on them,” Garrity said.
The importance of whitebark pine seeds to grizzly bears has become a source of contention between environmental groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Federal officials tried to delist grizzly bears in 2007, but a federal court ruled that agencies had not done enough study on how the decline in whitebark pine would impact the bears.
Additional research showed bear populations increased until 2001 and have remained steady despite nearly three-quarters of whitebark pines dying off. Research found that bears shifted food sources from the pine seeds to more meat-based sources. Between 629 and 740 bears live in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Last December, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee voted unanimously to recommend ending federal protections for the bears around Yellowstone. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet acted on the committee’s recommendation.
Scientists have a difference of opinion on whether grizzly numbers have increased near Yellowstone, Garrity said.
More time spent monitoring the region for bears could account for the higher count, and new research from the University of Colorado questions the federal population estimates, he said.
As grizzlies shift food sources from whitebark pine in high elevation to big game carcasses in lower elevations, mortality could increase because of more human and bear conflicts, Garrity said.
The lawsuit asks the Ninth Circuit to declare that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to list the whitebark pine as warranted but precluded violates the law, to set aside or remand the lower court decision and to force the agency to set a date to issue a proposed endangered species listing rule for the tree.