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Whitebark Pine Trees are Endangered by Climate Change

By Matt Skoglund (NRDC) - July 20, 2011

Today, in response to a petition we filed in December 2008, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found that the whitebark pine tree should be listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Specifically, the Service concluded that the threats whitebark faces, including climate change, are of such a high magnitude and are so pressing that whitebark pine is in danger of extinction. This is the first time that the federal government has declared a widespread tree species in danger of imminent extinction because of climate change.

Unfortunately, however, the Fish & Wildlife Service said it will not immediately list whitebark as threatened or endangered because of higher priorities and a lack of funding. But, because of the severe risks to whitebark, the agency assigned it one of its highest priorities for future listing, which is good news.

(Side note: if the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service does not currently have the funding it needs to implement the Endangered Species Act and help protect plants and animals threatened with extinction, why the hell are Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives proposing to bar all new listings of endangered species? Shouldn’t we be more conservative and try to conserve these species? Jeez louise.)

This “warranted but precluded” finding for whitebark pine by the Fish and Wildlife Service should send a loud and clear message to those still arguing that the earth is flat and the sun orbits around the earth, I mean those still arguing that climate change is not real. Thanks to warmer temperatures, the roof of the Rockies is dying, and the federal agency tasked with responding to Endangered Species Act petitions just issued a finding that concluded that the iconic whitebark pine tree, because of global warming, now needs a life jacket.

The background story of the collapse of whitebark pine is sad but straightforward: due to warmer winter temperatures, mountain pine beetles, a native insect, are surviving at higher elevations because the requisite prolonged cold snaps needed to kill the beetles are not occurring. As a result, the beetles have murderously worked their way through whitebark country, leaving a massive trail of dead trees in their wake. A non-native fungus, white pine blister rust, has also been attacking whitebark. The result has been an epic die-off of this magnificent tree.

In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for example, a pioneering study undertaken by NRDC, the U.S. Forest Service, and a few other Whitebark Warriors in 2009 found that over 80% of whitebark pine forests in the Greater Yellowstone had experienced moderate to high mortality with another 15% in earlier stages of beetle infestation. And some experts predict that whitebark pine will be functionally extinct in the Greater Yellowstone in the very near future.

The death of this tree is a tragic loss, as the whitebark pine is a keystone species that affects the entire ecosystem. Whitebark pines stabilize the soil, shade snowpack into the summer (which helps delay snow runoff and thus feeds cold water to our rivers later in the summer when such water is badly needed), and their fatty, nutritious seeds feed Clark’s nutcracker birds, red squirrels, and grizzly bears. The loss of whitebark, therefore, significantly affects snowpack, vegetation, and wildlife.

Though a full endangered species listing would have, of course, been preferred, the Fish & Wildlife Service’s landmark finding of whitebark pine as a “candidate species” (i.e., a candidate for the endangered species list when funding is available) means the U.S. Forest Service, on whose land the majority of whitebark pine stands are located, will automatically designate whitebark pine as a “sensitive species,” which requires the agency to take special management actions for whitebark.

But, ultimately, the Fish & Wildlife Service’s finding is bittersweet. It is good to see the agency recognize the climate-driven plight of whitebark, but, at the same time, the Service’s finding shows just how dire the situation has become for the studly, stately tree of the high country of the Rockies.

And it makes me think about the scores of other species – fish, wildlife, plants, trees – that are being pushed to the brink of survival by our warming climate. Will those species ever get a life jacket? Or will an endangered listing for them also be “warranted but precluded”? Or, more ominously, is it already too late for some of them?

The above questions all point to the big question more people are asking: when will we stop kicking the can down the street and take decisive action on climate change?

As today’s finding by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service shows us, the dying whitebark pine tree in the western United States is a juiced-up canary in a massive coal mine screaming for help.