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Listing of whitebark pine could give Montana’s alpine forests a chance

A dead whitebark pine tree in Glacier National Park. (NPS)

After waiting more than a decade, whitebark pine may finally receive endangered species protection. But some say the listing proposal may need modification to be effective.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week announced it was considering listing whitebark pine as a threatened species and was opening a 60-day public comment period.

University of Colorado biology professor Diana Tomback has argued for a listing since her graduate work two decades ago when she discovered a bird, Clark’s Nutcracker, helps to spread whitebark pine seeds.

“This is a proposal for listing. That means it’s on-track, barring any unanticipated comments. What it does is raises the profile of whitebark pine within the agencies in terms of management consideration. It’s a mandate for them,” Tomback said. “Where it grows, whitebark pine acts as a keystone and foundation species. Its presence at high elevation offers watershed protection – its canopy shades snowpack so there is downstream flow all summer.”

Scientists have known for several decades that the whitebark pine was in trouble.

Characterized by a somewhat bushy appearance and needles arranged in clumps of five, the mostly high-elevation species has lost half of its stands throughout the mountains of the West as of 2016.

In Montana, rocky alpine areas once harbored live trees that have turned into “gray ghosts,” denuded whitebark pines that died from either mountain pine beetle infestations or white-pine blister rust, a non-native fungal disease.

Within the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem where grizzly bears used to use whitebark pine seeds as an autumn food source, the whitebark pine population is down by 80%, said Paradise Valley entomologist Jesse Logan. Stands in 18 of 22 mountain ranges in the greater Yellowstone area are nearly gone.

“With the combination of the ’88 wildfires, white-pine blister rust – which is increasing – and the beetles, 80% or more is probably pretty accurate,” Logan said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council nominated the whitebark pine for listing in 2008, and the agency determined that listing was warranted in 2011. But another 260 species were also waiting for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decisions on whether they deserved endangered species protections. So the agency held off on listing the whitebark pine. In the meantime, the Forest Service has continued cutting some of the trees down.

Climate-change has caused many problems for whitebark pine. About a decade ago, the U.S. Forest Service estimated that climate change would cause the whitebark-pine population to shrink to less than 3% of its current range by the end of the century.

Mountain pine beetles didn’t used to cause as much damage to western forests. But, increasingly longer summers have allowed mountain pine beetles to reproduce twice a year rather than just once, and winters don’t get cold enough to kill the larvae burrowed under the bark. The combination caused whitebark pine stands to collapse within three years, Logan said.

But with the invasion of white pine blister rust, the story gets worse.

The blister rust is from China but invaded the Western U.S. in the early 1900s after being brought into ports in Vancouver, B.C., and elsewhere. It has slowly worked its way east through the forests of Washington and Idaho into Montana, where five-needle pines haven’t evolved much of a defense to the fungus.

Blister rust doesn’t do well in very cold conditions, and that used to favor whitebark pine. But now, the warming associated with climate change is allowing blister rust to attack whitebark pines at higher altitudes and more northern latitudes.

“The climate in the Crown of the Continent region and Pacific Northwest is perfect for the spread of blister rust. So on both the Canadian side and the U.S. side, blister rust infection levels are extremely high. They’re beyond 80% on the Canadian side in Waterton Lakes National Park,” Tomback said. “Probably in Glacier, too, but Glacier no longer has much functional whitebark pine.”

Finally, whitebark pine is a hardy survivor but a poor competitor. It has evolved to grow slowly, using minimal resources to live for centuries in incredibly harsh, cold, dry conditions where other species can’t survive. The lack of competition allows it to flourish. In more lush areas, it can’t grow fast enough to compete with other pine and fir species for light and water.

That is why Logan questions the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision not to designate critical habitat for whitebark pine. As climate change increases temperatures allowing other tree species to move up in elevation, whitebark pine habitat will decrease.

“That’s bothersome. With a habitat that is becoming more favorable – that is a longer growing season – for things like spruce, fir and lodgepole, the competitive displacement of whitebark driven by climate change may be the most enduring threat,” Logan said.

Logan said designating current whitebark pine habitat – or more importantly, future habitat, which would likely be at even higher elevations – would allow agencies to selectively remove competing tree species. But he didn’t want that to turn into a justification for unneeded logging.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies praised the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for finally proposing the listing but also didn’t like the lack of critical habitat.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that whitebark pine faces threats from white pine blister rust but did not acknowledge that climate change is one of the threats that are so pressing that whitebark pine is in danger of extinction,” said Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director. “We disagree with the FWS proposed decision to not designate critical habitat for whitebark pine.”

Once whitebark pine is listed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to develop a restoration plan. However, one version is already in the works.

Brian Kittler, Forest Restoration senior director for American Forests, said his organization has been working with the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies for the past three years to develop such a plan with a focus on fighting blister rust. The plan will identify ecologically intact core areas throughout the West for restoration, so that would include some critical habitat. But not all.

“Right now, we’re aiming to have the draft complete by the end of 2021,” Kittler said. “Right now, we have core-area proposals coming in, and then the next step is identifying the restoration actions in those areas and their costs. So at the end of all this we’ll know exactly what actions are needed, how much they cost and sort of what the time frame is going to look like.”

The restoration work will be carried out using seedlings produced from trees that have shown some resistance to blister rust.

“There’s a lot of variation in resistance,” Tomback said. “There are some populations that have no resistance. Other populations, like on Mount Rainer I think, have a surprisingly good amount of resistance, like about 14%. On average, it’s only about 5%.”

Forest Service nurseries have been producing resistant seedlings for the past decade and planted the first seedlings in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2012. Since then, it’s continued to plant tens of thousands with the help of funding from American Forests.

But whitebark pine trees don’t start reproducing until they are 50 years old. So planting seedlings and waiting for them to survive until they start to reproduce on their own is a long game. In the meantime, the few whitebark pine trees that still survive need all the protection they can get.

“With this listing, there’s going to be a recovery plan that will recognize the different strategies that exist to support the conservation and restoration of the species, and planting is really going to be that top action,” Kittler said. “We know that getting that resistance back out onto the landscape is the long-term strategy to ensure the species can persist.”

The USFWS will consider comments received by Feb. 1, 2021. Comments may be submitted electronically at www.regulations.gov by searching under docket number FWS–R6–ES–2019–0054 and clicking on the “comment now” button.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.