Whitebark pine that feeds grizzlies is under threat, says US

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – Whitebark pines can live for more than 1,000 years, but in just two decades more than a quarter of the trees that are a key food source for some grizzly bears have been killed by disease, climate change , wildfires and voracious beetles, government officials said as they planned to announce federal protections on Wednesday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will designate the whitebark pine as potentially endangered, according to details obtained by The Associated Press. The belated recognition of the tree’s serious decline will force authorities to develop a recovery plan and continue restoration work.

Whitebark pines are found at elevations up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) – conditions too harsh for most trees to survive.

A non-native fungus – white pine blister rust – has been killing whitebark pines for a century and they have been largely wiped out in some areas. This includes the eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park, where tree seeds are a food source for endangered grizzly bears.

More recently, the trees have proven vulnerable to bark beetles that have killed millions of acres of forest and to climate change that scientists say is responsible for more severe wildfire seasons.

The trees are found on 126,000 square miles (326,164 square kilometers) of land in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and western Canada.

Wildlife officials have refused to designate forest habitats critical to the tree’s survival, stopping short of what some conservationists argue is necessary. An estimated 88% of their habitat is federally owned, with most of this area managed by the US Forest Service.

Despite the threats, whitebark pine populations remain resilient enough to withstand disease and other problems for decades, said Alexandra Kasdin of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We found that it’s likely to become endangered for the foreseeable future, not that it’s endangered now,” Kasdin said. “The species is still relatively widespread throughout its vast range.”

A 2009 court ruling that reinstated protections for Yellowstone’s bears cited part of the tree’s decline, though government studies later concluded grizzly bears could find other things to eat.

This has complicated government efforts to declare grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area as a recovered species that no longer needs federal protection. Grizzly bears attack caches of whitebark pine cones that are hidden by squirrels and devour the seeds in the cones to fatten up for the winter.

Environmentalists had petitioned the government in 1991 and again in 2008 to protect the trees. After being sued for failing to take action to protect the pines, wildlife officials acknowledged in 2011 that whitebark pines needed protections, but took no immediate action, saying that other species faced more immediate threats.

The protections passed Wednesday were proposed two years ago. The final rule includes new provisions that allow members of Native American tribes to harvest whitebark pine seeds for ceremonial or traditional purposes.

Researchers and private groups are working with federal officials on plans to collect cones from blister rust-resistant trees, grow the seeds in greenhouses, and then replant them in the landscape.

“There is hope here,” said Diana Tomback, professor of biology at the University of Colorado at Denver and policy director of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.

“We know how to find genetic resistance to white pine blister rust and many whitebark pines have it. They will be the foundation of a plantation strategy,” she said.

A draft restoration plan is expected early next year.

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