Energy & Environment

‘Keystone’ mountain pine of US West earns endangered species protections

FILE – In this 2013 photo, cone collectors like Gabe Thorne, of Hamilton, head up into the high country around the west to climb to the very top of whitebark pine and collect cones from disease-free trees in Sula, Mont. U.S. officials say climate change, beetles and a deadly fungus are imperiling the long-term survival of the high-elevation tree found in the western U.S. (Perry Backus/Ravalli Republic via AP, File)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced on Wednesday that it would be listing the whitebark pine as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Whitebark pines are what the FWS describe as “a keystone species” that live in windy, cold, high-elevation environments across the Western U.S. and southern Canada.

“Extending ESA protections to whitebark pine is critical to not only the tree itself, but also the numerous plants, animals, and watersheds that it supports,” Matt Hogan, an FWS regional director, said in a statement.

This five-needled pine species impacts the health and life cycles of other mountain inhabitants and plays a critical role in curbing runoff from snowmelt, according to the FWS.

The trees also provide a high-energy food source to animals, the agency added.

Whitebark pine nuts are rich in fats, carbohydrates and protein — making them an important snack for grizzly bears before denning, according to the National Park Service.

While the whitebark pine plays a critical role in Western mountain ecosystems, the tree species “is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout its range,” according to the FWS.

The primary threat to the tree is “white pine bluster,” a non-native fungal disease. Other threats include mountain pine beetles, altered wildfire patterns and climate change, the FWS stated.

Scientists estimate that as of 2016, as many as 51 percent of all standing whitebark pine trees were dead, the agency added.

Providing endangered species protections to the whitebark pine will help support research efforts on conservation, while making it illegal to remove, process or damage the trees on federal lands, according to the FWS. The protections will also prohibit interstate or foreign commerce — including the import or export — of the tree.

“It’s just incredibly sad to see so many dead whitebark pines in the high country,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

“These exceedingly beautiful trees are an icon of our western mountains and they need all the help they can get, including protection from development,” Greenwald added.

The final rule to list the whitebark pine as a threatened species will be published on Thursday in the Federal Register but is currently available for public inspection.

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