Citing threats posed by disease and climate change, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that the whitebark pine is receiving federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

A 2018 assessment found that more than half of the standing whitebark pine trees in the West had died by 2016. The die-off is largely attributed to blister rust, a non-native fungal disease. Additional threats to the species’ long-term survival include mountain pine beetle infestations, altered wildfire patterns and climate change. 

In an interview with Montana Free Press, Center for Biological Diversity Endangered Species Director Noah Greenwald described climate change as the “nail in the coffin” for whitebark pine, and high-elevation ecosystems more generally. 

“Blister rust is an introduced pathogen that’s been spreading to white pines and it’s the primary cause of death,” Greenwald said. “Climate change is an additional and newer threat that is causing more frequent and higher-severity fires in the high country and leading to more mountain pine beetle outbreaks. “

A release from the USFWS, the federal agency charged with leading the management of threatened and endangered species, describes whitebark pine as a keystone species that’s critical to other species and the watersheds in which it grows.

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Whitebark pine proposed as ‘threatened’

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.

Whitebark pine live in high-elevation and northerly environments across the western U.S. and southern Canada that can be inhospitable to other tree species. Their nuts provide grizzly bears with a source of fat, protein and carbohydrates in the fall, when they’re especially focused on obtaining calories to carry them through their winter hibernation. The nuts are also eaten by Clark’s nutcrackers and a range of other bird species, as well as chipmunks and squirrels.

Whitebark pine cover shades snow, which can help watersheds hold on to snowpack longer, an ecosystem service that’s becoming increasingly important as climate change shifts the timing of mountain snowmelt, contributing to shrinking late-season streamflows.

Because the primary threat to whitebark pine is a pathogen rather than habitat destruction, no critical habitat designations are incorporated into the agency’s management plan for whitebark pine, per a 2019 Endangered Species Act change promulgated by the Trump administration. The vast majority of whitebark pine’s range — 88% — is within federal land managed by agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. 

Greenwald said his organization would have liked USFWS to include a critical habitat designation in its plan for whitebark pine management. The tree “needs all the help it can get,” he said, adding that increasing winter recreation in high-elevation ecosystems poses an additional threat to the species’ survival.

Whitebark pine cones in Crater Lake National Park. Credit: Richard Sniezk /USFS

Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation Policy and Outreach Coordinator Diana Tomback said in the USFWS release that there are tools that can help whitebark pine become more resilient to threats, and that she’s particularly encouraged by the development of a National Whitebark Pine Restoration Plan.

That plan is being developed collaboratively by the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and American Forests, in consultation with federal land managers and tribes including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which described the listing as a positive development in the “restoration of the land and our culture.”

USFWS Regional Director Matt Hogan said his agency “looks forward to continuing engagement with the many whitebark pine conservation partners during the recovery planning process to ensure this species continues to endure for generations.”

The listing designation 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 that resources to help fund its recovery did not exist at that time. In December 2020, USFWS announced its proposal of a threatened designation for whitebark pine.

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Amanda EggertEnvironmental Reporter

Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...