Whitebark Pine is found in the mountains of the Pacific Coast, from Washington State south to central California and in the Rocky Mountains from Idaho to Nevada. As we wrote in a previous post on the Whitebark Pine, the trees are under increased attacked by mountain pine beetles now often able to survive the slowly declining chill of winter and migrate to higher elevations due to warming temperatures (read our previous post for more on ecosystem shift and species migration). The trees have no natural defense against the beetle, depending instead on elevation and frigid winter temperature to protect it from the growing onslaught. The Whitebarks are also suffering from blister rust, an invasive fungus that has been weakening white pine species for the past century.
With the warming temperatures, surviving pine beetles, and blister rust large swaths of defenseless mature stands of Whitebark pine have been turned into a “sea of dead trees” throughout the mountain west.
The decision to consider the Whitebark Pine for endangered species status stems from a 2008 petition (pdf) from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that states climate change could push the high elevation tree to extinction.
The Fish and Wildlife service was slow to respond to the NRDC petition, prompting a lawsuit last February to force action on the quickly declining population of Whitebarks.
The Whitebark Pine is an important foundation species, often the first to colonize the harsh, high elevation environment, providing shade and windbreaks for other plant species to colonize an area. The tree is also known as a “keystone” species, stabilizing soil and regulating runoff, a vital element in the hydrological process of the high mountains that is essential to communities and urban centers throughout the west. The Whitebark also supplies food and shelter for many animals including birds, squirrels, and bears.
The announcement from the Fish and Wildlife service is the “start of a long process” according to a FSW press release, and begins a 60-day period of public comment on the status of the Whitebark Pine. The press release also says, in part:
To ensure this review is comprehensive, the Service is soliciting information from state and federal natural resource agencies, Native American Tribes, the scientific community, industry, and any other interested parties regarding whitebark pine and its habitat.
The Service is seeking information regarding whitebark pine’s status including historic and current range, historic and current population levels and current and projected trends, distribution patterns, and past and ongoing conservation measures for the species and its habitat.
If listing whitebark pine is warranted, the Service intends to propose critical habitat and therefore requests information on what may constitute the physical and biological features essential to the conservation of the species; where these features are currently found; whether any of these features may require special management considerations or protection; and whether there are specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species that are essential to the conservation of the species.
Scientific information will be accepted until September 20, 2010 and can be submitted electronically via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at: http://www.regulations.gov, or can be mailed or hand delivered to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R6-ES-2010-0047; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222; Arlington, VA 22203.”
Image credit: USDA Forest Service