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An Endangered Tree

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Q&A: NRDC Scientist Sylvia Fallon on listing whitebark pine as an endangered species

Can a tree be an endangered species? Dr. Sylvia Fallon, a geneticist and evolutionary biologist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says yes. NRDC recently asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the whitebark pine, a tree crucial to the habitat of many animals in the Rocky Mountains, to the federal endangered species list. Vast tracts of whitebark pine have already been destroyed by mountain pine beetles, fungus, and other threats driven by climate change. Fallon wrote the petition seeking endangered species protection for the whitebark pine and will learn early next year whether the Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to move forward, which means crafting a plan for protecting the tree. She talked to OnEarth about the threats confronting whitebark pine, why this species is so critical to the West, and what it takes to get federal protection for a plant. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Does the Endangered Species Act already protect plants?

Trees and plants are treated the same as any other species under the Endangered Species Act, and there are a number of them already listed. But there is a distinction between vertebrate organisms and other species: the act can protect individual populations of vertebrates, but for invertebrates and plants, the protections must apply to an entire species or subspecies. There are some trees on the endangered species list, but, so far, trees that are listed have very restricted environments -- they're found on a single island or in a few counties. The whitebark pine is the only wide-ranging tree ever proposed for inclusion on the endangered species list. It's found in the western United States, both along the coast and inland, throughout the Rocky Mountains, and on up into Canada.

How does the government decide if a species deserves endangered species status?

The definition of an endangered species under the law is any species in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A threatened species is any species that is likely to become endangered. The Fish and Wildlife Service uses a series of factors to evaluate endangered species petitions based on a species' habitat and biology: modification of that habitat, diseases and predation, other natural or manmade factors affecting the species, and the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.

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What are the main threats to whitebark pine?

There's recently been a major mountain pine beetle outbreak. In the past, the beetles didn't reach the high elevations where the whitebark pine is found; now elevated temperatures have moved their range higher up. And their life cycle is also accelerated -- they're able to reproduce more quickly and survive winters better than before. Another threat is an introduced fungus called blister rust. The trees are more susceptible to infection by the mountain pine beetles if they have already been weakened by blister rust.

Beetles also infest mature trees, and it's now common practice to manage forests by suppressing fires. The result is continuous, intact stands of older trees that the beetles can move through pretty easily.

There's definitely a synergy among these factors, but without climate change, we wouldn't have seen this large outbreak of pine beetles. Climate is really what's driving the devastation of the species.

What's the current status of the whitebark pine proposal?

We're still waiting for the Fish and Wildlife Service's initial 90-day finding, in which they'll decide whether to consider the whitebark pine's case for endangered species status. If the Fish and Wildlife Service decides the tree's situation merits further study, it triggers a 12-month internal review. During that time, they'll gather more data and assess the whitebark pine's threats in more detail. At the end of that process, the Fish and Wildlife Service decides whether they will protect the whitebark pine under the Endangered Species Act.

What happens if the whitebark pine is added to the endangered species list?

The Fish and Wildlife Service would devise a strategy to deal with the threats to the whitebark pine. Right now there are only limited efforts and research underway to deal with both the blister rust and the beetles, but this would require a concerted effort -- one that's enforceable by law. Our hope is to bring the added resources and attention to what this species needs to survive.

As with any species threatened by climate change, the single most important thing we can do is address global warming. But there are also a few things that can be done in the short term that might help stop the spread of the beetle and the fungus. One strategy might be to selectively cultivate trees that show natural resistance to the blister rust. There's also some research into using pheromones that trick beetles into thinking a tree is already infested, which makes them less likely to burrow into it. But there's no way to predict how long it will take to see any recovery.

The seeds of the whitebark pine are a major food source for grizzly bears. Recently, a federal court added grizzly bears back to the federal endangered species list. What does that mean for the whitebark petition, for grizzlies, and for the Rocky Mountain ecosystem as a whole?

The whitebark pine problem played a huge part in the recent court case. The judge's decision noted that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately consider the effect that declining whitebark pine would have on the grizzlies. Reinstating protections for the bears means that the service will need to address the added threat that the loss of whitebark pine poses to the bear. This may mean reconsidering the habitat necessary to support the bear, for example, and working to reduce conflicts with humans that threaten bears as they search for additional food sources.

We worked with the U.S. Forest Service on an innovative research project to map the whitebark pine die-offs throughout the entire Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The news has not been encouraging for grizzly bears' future survival, as early data returns indicate that over 70 percent of whitebark pine trees have died in some areas. That's a problem for the bears ... and for the entire region, since whitebark pine is a foundational species that creates the conditions necessary for other plants and animals in the area.

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Crystal Gammon is an intern at OnEarth. Before moving to New York City to study science, health and environmental journalism at New York University, she received a master’s degree in earth science at the California Institute of Technology. She’s ... READ MORE >