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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Tuesday that the whitebark pine tree, which faces threats from invasive species, climate change and wildfires, be protected with a “threatened” designation under the Endangered Species Act.

The whitebark pine, which grows in higher elevations, poor soil, and other places inhospitable to many trees, is a keystone species across 80 million acres of western North America, including seven states in the U.S. The tree is critical to forest landscapes, popping up as quickly as two years after major fires, often providing cover for new growth, and helping to more evenly distribute runoff by blocking wind and shading snowpack.

But the species has experienced a significant die-off in recent decades. An estimated 51% of all standing whitebark pine trees in the U.S. are dead, with more than half of those mortalities having occurred in the past two decades. The primary threats are a fungal disease called white pine blister rust, which was introduced in the early 20th century; mountain pine beetles, which are proliferating as winters become warmer; an increase in wildfires caused by changing fire regimes and a warming planet; and warmer weather that is more likely to increase drought. 

“This is the most widespread tree to get protected under the Endangered Species Act,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “The fact that it’s at risk shows how profoundly we’re changing the planet, both through climate change and the introduction of a non-native pathogen [white pine blister rust].”

In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, whitebark pine-dominated areas once teemed with life because the tree’s seeds have long been a key, high-calorie food for species such as grizzly bears, squirrels and Clark’s nutcracker, said Wally MacFarlane, a senior research associate at Utah State University. Now, high-elevation forests in the Yellowstone area, at least 80% of which are dead or dying, have become “ghost forests,” MacFarlane said.

The proposed listing, which has a 60-day comment period, has been decades in the making. The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned for the tree to be protected in 2008, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 determined that the species merited protection, but did not have the resources to help fund its recovery.

Rebecca Riley, legal director of the nature program at NRDC, said Tuesday’s announcement was a welcome surprise.

“We hadn’t heard about this in a long time,” Riley said. “We obviously wish they had listed the species 10 years ago, but doing it now is a good thing. It’s a step in the right direction to get the resources we need to recover this species.”

The trees will benefit from the listing because the announcement will raise awareness about the species’ troubles and likely help increase resources for recovery, said Robert Mangold, director of the nonprofit Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and a retired U.S. Forest Service employee.

“This is not a tree species that is suffering much from issues around take, we’re not logging this tree, and people aren’t harvesting it. It’s usually in very remote areas,” Mangold said.

The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, based in Missoula, began work on a National Whitebark Pine Restoration Plan in 2016. The foundation partners with American Forests, a nonprofit organization, and the U.S. Forest Service on the plan. Other partners include the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. 

Researchers have already started to selectively breed trees that are resistant to white pine blister rust, which is the most “existential” threat across their range from the Pacific coast to the Northern Rockies, said Diana Tomback, a founding member of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and professor of integrative biology at the University of Colorado Denver.

Tomback said the seed production of resistant trees will be significant to helping the species deal with other issues, like increasing fires, a warming climate and mountain pine beetles. Whitebark pines generally don’t start to produce seeds until they are at least 40 years old.

The proposal to list the species does not come with a critical habitat designation, which would identify areas where the species does not currently exist, but could. The Trump administration has changed the rules about designation of critical habitat to prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from considering the potential impacts of climate change on a species’ habitat. 

Andrea Zaccardi, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the organization will be submitting comments asking for critical habitat designation. 

MacFarlane said his main worry isn’t that whitebark pine trees will disappear entirely, but that the species will no longer be prolific enough to help shape ecosystems in the way they historically have.

“The species likely isn’t going to go extinct like a rhino, it’s different that way,” MacFarlane said. “We’ll still have trees on the landscape, but they will not be providing what the ecosystem needs.”

In Yellowstone, that’s already happening. Whitebark pine seeds used to provide a main food source for grizzlies. Now, without significant whitebark pine crops, bears are increasingly expanding their territories in search of food, and being killed for predation of livestock and visiting houses in the process.

David Mattson, a grizzly bear researcher in Livingston who worked for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team for two decades, has documented the symbiotic relationship between Yellowstone grizzlies and whitebark pines. Mattson’s research has twice forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-do delisting decisions for the Yellowstone grizzly bear, including in a 2009 decision that failed to consider the impact of whitebark pine losses on grizzly bears.

Mattson said he isn’t sure if the whitebark pine listing will make much difference for grizzlies.

“I really don’t see anything that might follow from this listing affecting grizzly bears or improving the world for grizzly bears,” Mattson said.

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Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.