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Western forests: Whitebark pine in danger of extinction

July 18, 2011 |  7:07 pm


Whitebark pine can live for hundreds of years in the West's harsh alpine environments, but it may not survive disease, bugs and climate change.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday that the tree was in such widespread decline that it deserved a place on the endangered species list, although the agency declined to officially list it.

The service instead designated whitebark a candidate species, saying that the funding and resources were unavailable to grant the pine protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Whitebark pine, an important food source for birds and bears, is under attack from an array of forces. The federal government's long-standing policy of fire suppression thwarted the low-intensity wildfires that helped maintain healthy whitebark stands by thinning competitors and creating disturbed sites good for seedling growth.

White pine blister rust, an exotic disease introduced to western North America a century ago, is attacking whitebarks in virtually all of their range, increasing their susceptibility to the destructive mountain pine beetle.

Scientists expect whitebark habitat to shrink with global warming, which will make the tree's high-altitude home warmer and drier and more hospitable to other species. Studies suggest climate change is also aiding pine beetle epidemics and promoting more destructive forest fires.

"The species appears likely to be in danger of extinction, or likely to become so within the foreseeable future, because of environmental changes resulting from climate change that are
exacerbating other threats," concludes the Fish and Wildlife Service, which made the finding in response to a petition filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

The slow-growing whitebark can live for 500 years, and sometimes for 1,000 years. The tree is found in the mountains of the western U.S. and Canada, typically at the timberline or just below it. In the U.S., most grow on national forest land.

Although grizzly bears eat whitebark seeds, the service said in a news release that grizzlies have enough other food sources to cope with the tree's decline.


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 --Bettina Boxall

Photo: Whitebark pine. Credit: Richard Sniezko / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service