Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit this week seeking to force the federal government into listing the whitebark pine as a threatened or endangered species.
In July 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the whitebark pine is "warranted for listing as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act" but didn't list it because other species were considered higher priorities. The finding was made after a lawsuit was filed by the Natural Resource Defense Counsel in 2010.
But the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the WildWest Institute in Missoula want a federal court judge to declare the agency's decision is contrary to law. They're seeking to have the decision set aside or sent back to the USFWS, and compel the agency to promptly set a reasonable date to issue a proposed Endangered Species listing rule on whitebark pines.
"People who spend time in the high-country realize that whitebark pines are dying at alarming rates due to impacts associated with climate change," said Matthew Koehler with the WildWest Institute. "We cannot sit back, do nothing, and watch a critically important component of our high-country ecosystem just disappear and go extinct before our eyes."
Whitebark pine is a slow-growing tree with long life spans; some are anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years old. Its cones provide highly-nutritious seeds for more than 20 different species including Clark's nutcracker, grizzly bears, black bears, Steller's jay and pine grosbeak.
The trees grow at the highest elevations, just below timberline, usually on the lee sides of ridges where heavy snows accumulate. They like cold, windy and moist areas and require full sunlight to prosper.
The Helena National Forest is home to numerous stands of whitebark pine, according to Kathy Bushnell, the forest's public information officer.
"In some areas, the stands are fairly sizable," Bushnell said. "We have some by the Granite Butte Lookout, in the Scapegoat (Wilderness Area) and on Duck Creek Pass."
The stands near the Granite Butte Lookout are part of an ongoing effort to help save the trees, which are threatened in part by disease and climate change. The Granite Butte whitebark pine trees are highly valued because they have superior genetics resulting in resilience to blister rust, a disease that has caused widespread mortality in the West. Pine cones from these trees are being collected and the seeds used in nursery stock for the agency whitebark pine restoration program.
Clark's nutcrackers also collect the seeds by cracking open the pine cones and gathering the seeds in specialized throat pouches; red squirrels also gather them. Both the birds and squirrels hide the seeds shallow holes on the forest floor or other caches, and if they don't eat the seeds later, new trees sprout.
Grizzly bears also eat the seeds, often finding the hidden stashes from the birds and squirrels or prying open the pine cones to pull out the seeds with their tongues. The seeds, whose contents are between 30 to 50 percent fat, provide anywhere from a quarter to two-thirds of their energy.
"During the years when pine seeds are scarce, conflicts with humans escalate dramatically, as does the death rate among bears," the groups noted in the lawsuit. "As a result, during the years when Yellowstone's grizzly bears are intensively using pine seeds, the population increases, whereas during the years when they are not, the population declines. In this way the availability of whitebark pine seeds is closely linked to the survival of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area."
According to the plaintiffs, the U.S. Forest Service has estimated that climate change could result in the whitebark pine population shrinking to less than 3 percent of its current U.S. distribution by the end of the century.
"Like the wolverine, polar bear and a growing number of other species, whitebark pines are being pushed to the brink of extinction by global warming," said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "Recently released studies determined that last year was the hottest on record in the U.S. at a full degree above long-term averages.
"It is time we wake up and admit that global warming is the most pressing environmental issue of our time. Our choice is simple: either we start dealing with it now or, unconscionably, we pass on even worse problems to our children and grandchildren."
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