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Final review begins to determine status of whitebark pine

Sylvia Fallon

Posted September 20, 2010

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Today is the deadline for comments on Fish and Wildlife’s finding that whitebark pine may qualify as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.  Now they begin a 12 month review of the species’ status before issuing their final decision sometime next year.  In the almost two years since we first submitted our petition to list whitebark pine as endangered, conditions for this tree have only worsened. 

Whitebark pine is an important high elevation species found in western North America that has been suffering  from an introduced fungal pathogen for nearly a century.  In the past two decades, however, a new threat has rapidly accelerated the decline of whitebark pine – the expansion of mountain pine beetles into higher elevations and more northern locations as climate causing milder winters allows them to survive in places they previously could not.  The effects have been devastating.

Some of the recent developments, which I highlighted in my recent comments to the Service, include:

  • The most thorough regional analysis of whitebark pine was recently completed in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and found that over 80% of the area’s whitebark pine was experiencing moderate to high mortality while only 5% appeared to be unaffected. 
  • The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada concluded that whitebark pine is endangered based on estimates that more than 50% of the country’s whitebark pine will be gone in 100 years with some areas experiencing 80-97% decline.
  • Additional research on seed predation and dispersal shows threshold effects suggesting that as whitebark pine declines to a certain point, the tree’s primary seed disperser, Clark’s nutcracker, is likely to abandon areas with few pine cones altogether while red squirrels are likely to consume – and thereby destroy – more seeds.  The ultimate effect of this combination of forces is an acceleration of the tree’s decline.
  • Finally, a recent edition of Forest Pathology summarized the current status of white pine blister rust – the invasive fungal pathogen that has been plaguing whitebark pine for nearly a century.  Among the findings are that 1. ) blister rust is distributed throughout almost the entire range of whitebark pine; 2.) blister rust may be able to adapt to varying climates including warmer, drier ones, and 3.) while other pines are affected by both mountain pine beetles and blister rust, whitebark pine appears to be the most susceptible of its kind.

We urge the Service to act swiftly in assessing the status of whitebark pine.  While the conditions are complicated and the solutions are not simple, we believe that placing whitebark pine on the endangered species list would bring the added resources that this problem needs and deserves.  Scientists both in academia and with the Forest Service have already been working to develop and implement restoration strategies for this imperiled tree in certain regions.  Endangered species status would mandate a range-wide recovery plan and additional agency resources to coordinate and execute a plan that could prevent this important keystone species from going extinct.

                                    Whitebark pine

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Dr. James SingmasterSep 21 2010 02:34 AM

As usual, NRDC and other environmentally concerned entities are wasting time on getting the white bark pine declared endangered, when what is involved is a natural phenomenum. Where action looks to be possible for controlling the problem is the indication in the report of 5% of the trees not being affected by the rust. This suggests that some trees may have some altered genetic factor conferring protection against the rust. So what ought to be done is a breeding program with some of the unaffected trees to get seedlings to plant. Getting them listed as endangered won't stop their succumbing, will it? Dr. J. Singmaster

Doug PageSep 21 2010 06:57 AM

Breeding program sounds great! what is involved? and who will run that program. Politicians need good advisers! because knowledge is the best weapon unfortunately when the people/companies destroying the planet have the most influence we are screwed!
all we have is our ambition, morality and 1 vote!

Sylvia FallonSep 21 2010 09:43 AM

Thanks for the comments. Unfortunately, there is little to no evidence that whitebark pine is demonstrating any resistance to the mountain pine beetle attacks. The 5% of the GYE that is unaffected simply represents a few geographic pockets that have not been hit by the beetles yet. If whitebark pine had some natural resistance, a breeding program would indeed help - as has been the case for blister rust. However the scale of the issue is so immense that current replanting efforts will barely make a dent in the mortality that is occurring and the blister rust resistant trees are still susceptible to mountain pine beetles. Blister rust, which is an introduced and invasive species, is hardly a natural phenomenon. And, as I've discussed before, while mountain pine beetles are native to the western US, their occurrence at these higher elevations and the rate at which they are proliferating is related to the warmer termperatures associated with climate change:

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