The white-bark pine that feeds grizzly bears is endangered, US says

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Whitebark pine trees can live to be more than 1,000 years old, but in just two decades, more than a quarter of the trees that are an important 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 protection on Wednesday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will designate whitebathes as endangered, according to details obtained by The Associated Press. The belated recognition of the tree’s serious decline requires officials to prepare a recovery plan and continue recovery efforts.

Whitebark pines can be 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’ve been largely wiped out in areas. So is the eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park, where seeds from the trees 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 climate change that scientists say is responsible for more severe wildfire seasons.

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

Conservationists declined to specify which forest habitats are critical to the tree’s survival, falling short of what some environmentalists say is necessary. An estimated 88% of their habitat is federally owned, and most of that area is 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We found that it’s probably facing extinction in the near future, not that it’s facing extinction right now,” Kasdin said. “The species is still relatively widespread in its extensive range.”

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

That has complicated government efforts to declare grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area as a recovered species no longer in need of federal protection. Grizzlies raid caches of white-barked pine cones hidden by squirrels and devour the seeds in the cones to make fat 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 steps to protect the pines, conservationists acknowledged in 2011 that whitebark pines needed protection, but took no immediate action, saying other species faced more immediate threats.

The protections passed on Wednesday were proposed two years ago. The latest rule includes new provisions that allow members of Native American tribes to collect seeds from whitebark pines for ceremonial or traditional use.

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’s hope here,” said Diana Tomback, a professor of biology at the University of Colorado at Denver and policy director for the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.

“We know how to find genetic resistance to white pine blister rust and there are a number of whitebark pine trees that have it. They will form the basis of a planting strategy,” she said.

A draft of the recovery plan is expected early next year.

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