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It's Official: Whitebark Pine Trees are Endangered by Climate Change

Matt Skoglund

Posted July 18, 2011

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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.

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A sea of dead and dying whitebark pine trees in the Northern Rockies in Montana.

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.


(To see a bird’s-eye view of the plight of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (a series of photos I took from a helicopter last fall), click here.  For a separate photo essay of the calamity of whitebark pine I put together, click here.)

(And to stay updated on all of our efforts to protect wildlife and wild places, join

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PCJul 18 2011 10:52 PM

Great post. It's sad and frustrating that 'Warranted but Precluded" seems to have become the default option for USFWS. Between that and irresponsibly legislating away endangered species status, it's a sad state of affairs.

Bryan AndersenJul 18 2011 11:11 PM

Maybe if the FWS hadn't had their funds raided by so many law suits they would have had the funds to go ahead with listing the whitebark pine tree. Groups may get what they ask for when they sue, but everybody also gets all the consequences too. How many species weren't able to be evaluated this year due to the attorney fees paid out? With a 2006 mean value of $1.4 million to recover a species, how many species, that could have been saved, will die out due to the law suits?

lousewort rogersJul 19 2011 12:14 AM

environgelic journalism

mehmet nariçiJul 19 2011 05:20 AM

Forested areas at risk, national parks, stations must be checked kilimatik. Should be determined before the deaths.

Mia McPhersonJul 19 2011 08:22 AM

Matt, I remember seeing the pine forests of the west when I was younger and before the pines had been affected by the pine beetles had caused such massive destruction. It always saddens (and sickens) me when I see the dead or dying trees, the ghost forests. I hope we can prevent the extinction of the white pines.

Meme MineJul 20 2011 03:26 PM

A former climate change believer speaks:

Even neocons and the scientifically illiterate know that stewardship of the planet is a recognized concern by everyone. But so is celebrating the defeat of the smoggy 70’s when a river caught fire in Ohio. We have much work to do still and much to be proud of. Sixty years of Rachel Carson’s revolution has brought us a bounty of environmental awareness, laws, protections and standards that have helped give us the highest longevity rates in human history as a species. Much of the Canadian and American rustbelt has not had one single smog day in over 5 years, only alerts of smog that are predictions, not measurements. Environmental protection of wildlife and plants and forests and wetlands etc. is taught in every school and together we have turned this ship around. Life is good so now is the time to pull the gun away from our children’s heads with the death warrant of “death by CO2” as fear is always a temporary and fatal motivator. “SAVE THE PLANET” and “Unstoppable warming” and “dire consequences” and “leaving a planet that is livable for our children” are now seen for what they all were; veiled warnings of misery and death. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t look my kids in the eyes any longer and tell them that CO2 is the enemy. I need a more convincing reason now to hold the spear of CO2 fear to my children’s backs as I warn them of the dire consequences of CO2 ruining our world. Scientific consensus only meant that all the scientists had personal conclusions and thus proves consensus was a comfortable exaggeration. Ask yourself, after 25 years of the CO2 mistake, are you willing to put the safety back on while you hold the CO2 gun to YOUR children’s heads? Obama never even mentioned the crisis in his last state of the union speech so how important could this “crisis” have been? Be happy for the planet AND your kids, not disappointed. And besides, it looks like the new denier is anyone who still thinks voters will vote yes to taxing the air to make the weather colder. And are you willing to hand over the management of the atmosphere to carbon trading markets and corporations and politicians? Climate Change is dead and continued support of the CO2 blunder is not helping anyone, OR the planet. Welcome home CO2. To Rachel Carson; we are truly sorry for turning your love for the planet into 25 years of CO2 fear mongering.

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