Feds to consider endangered status for whitebark | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Feds to consider endangered status for whitebark

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to consider endangered species protection for a high-elevation pine tree devastated by beetles and fungus.

Whitebark pines can be found in the harsh, high elevations of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and western Canada.

The trees have proven unusually vulnerable as mountain pine beetles have killed millions of acres of forest across the West in recent years. A fungus introduced from Europe also has been taking a toll on whitebark forests for a century.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday that an endangered species petition filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council warrants further investigation.

Fish and Wildlife plans to study threats to the whitebark pine before announcing in a year whether to list it as threatened or endangered.

“We just evaluated the information in the petition. The threat factors that we felt were substantial, we identified,” said Ann Belleman, a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Cody who will be among those studying the tree further.

Whitebark pine trees can live up to 1,000 years. They grow at elevations up to 12,000 feet in conditions too harsh for most trees.

Preliminary results from aerial surveys last year showed beetles have all but wiped out some whitebark forests, including along the eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park.

The devastation will have implications well beyond the forests, environmentalists say.

Whitebark pine nuts are an important, high-calorie food source for grizzly bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Grizzlies raid squirrel caches of whitebark pine cones and devour the seeds within the cones to fatten up for winter.

Whitebark forests also anchor down mountain snowpack, preventing the snow from blowing away or melting before spring runoff provides critical water for cities and agriculture.

“It’s not just any tree. It’s a very unique tree to the function of the high mountain ecosystem where it lives,” said Louisa Willcox, wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston, Mont.

Efforts to save the trees include spraying them with insecticide and stapling to their trunks pouches containing a hormone that warns away mountain pine beetles.

Such approaches are difficult across vast ecosystems, however.

“Frankly, we don’t entirely know what to do,” Willcox said. “To be totally honest, no one knows what to do.”

An endangered listing, she said, could help draw attention to the problem and perhaps attract people with new ideas for saving the tree.

The Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned in December 2008 to list the whitebark pine as endangered.

The group sued Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in February, nearly a year after the deadline for Fish and Wildlife to decide if the petition had merit. Monday’s announcement resulted from a settlement in the case last month.

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