Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Hike the high alpine slopes of the northern Rocky Mountains and you’ll often be greeted by “gray ghosts,” the remains of whitebark pine trees that once covered the mountains of Montana and surrounding states.

The decline of whitebark pine has been severe, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided the species deserves protection.

After 12 years of consideration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed whitebark pine trees as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency determined that the species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.

“As a keystone species of the West, 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,” said USFWS Regional Director Matt Hogan. “The Service now looks forward to continuing engagement with the many whitebark pine conservation partners during the recovery planning process to ensure this species continues to endure for future generations.”

Whitebark pine - a conifer with clusters of five needles like the limber pine - inhabits over 80 million acres in high-elevation or high-latitude environments of western North America with approximately 70% of its distribution in the U.S.

Because it serves critical services such as slowing snowmelt at high elevations and providing food for several species including squirrels, Clark’s nutcracker and grizzly bears, it’s recognized as a keystone species.

In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, grizzly bears’ diets could be as much as 75% pine nuts when whitebark pine trees were more abundant, said whitebark pine expert Jesse Logan.

But thousands of whitebark pine stands have been decimated by climate change, pine beetles and white pine blister rust, an exotic fungus.

Over the past three to four decades, the combination of these threats has killed an estimated 51% of all whitebark pine stands across its range. Within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where damage from pine beetles predominated, only 10% remain alive, according to some estimates.

Stands in 18 of 22 mountain ranges in the greater Yellowstone area are nearly gone. In the Bob Marshall Wilderness, scientists estimated an 87% decline in live trees since 1994.

Depending on which climate change model is used, scientists estimate between 3% and 17% of current whitebark pine habitat will have a favorable climate for the tree in 2100. And not surprisingly, most is at the top of the tallest mountains.

Now that the species is protected, it is illegal to remove, possess or damage the species on federal lands, although there are no limitations on private land. The Service says the listing will also spur research efforts to conserve the species.

For about two decades, American Forests, a nonprofit, has been trying to help plant seedlings that are resistant to white pine blister rust. Botanists located the 5-20% of whitebark pines that appear to be resistant to blister rust while trees all around them are dying. They gathered cones from these trees and use the seeds to produce rust-resistant seedlings. About 200 were planted in orchards that will provide more cones and the rest have been planted on national forests since 2012.

American Forests Northern Rockies Director Wes Swaffar said about 1 million seedlings have been planted so far. But whitebark pine is a slow-growing species and don’t start producing seeds until they’re about 50 years old. It will be decades before the seedlings can replace the mature trees that have been lost, so protection is needed for the mature stands that remain.

Drawing on its experience helping the U.S. Forest Service develop the planting program, American Forests will also play a role in developing the recovery plan for whitebark pine. In 2017, American Forests started working with the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation to develop the national whitebark pine restoration plan.

“Whitebark pine has an incredibly large range,” Swaffar said. “Specifically, the plan takes about 20-30% of whitebark pine distribution within a given (Forest Service region) and says these are going to be the areas where we’ll focus our restoration efforts. There’s no chance we’re going to restore 100% of the whitebark pine because of funding. But by restoring 20-30%, we have enough genetic resistance on the landscape that then Clark’s nutcrackers can begin repopulating (the rest).”

In Forest Service Region 1, that 20-30% would include the Crown of the Continent where, since 2016, the Crown of the Continent High Five Working Group has worked to develop a Crown-scale effort to recover both whitebark and limber pine.

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Swaffar said the restoration plan should be finalized in the spring and then the Fish and Wildlife Service will include some of it in the agency’s recovery plan.

“We applaud the decision by the USFWS to list whitebark pine as threatened. It brings much-needed attention to the plight of this remarkable tree and builds further public support for the challenging restoration work ahead,” said David Neale, Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation director.

While some are celebrating Wednesday’s announcement, others aren’t taking it at face value because they’ve already spent years fighting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get the species listed.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said two years ago that it would consider protecting the whitebark pine and Wednesday’s announcement is the result.

However, the process started in 2008, when the Natural Resources Defense Council nominated the whitebark pine for listing. Three years later, 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, and the Fish and Wildlife Service decided protection was warranted.

But another 260 species were also waiting for endangered species protections. So the agency held off listing the whitebark pine, and the Forest Service continued cutting some of the trees down.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Wildlife Institute sued the Fish and Wildlife Service for delaying the listing. The courts ruled in favor of the Service in 2014, agreeing that the Service had its hands full.

Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director, felt vindicated by the listing but was concerned that the agency might not follow parts of the ESA law, which could allow the Forest Service to continue to log whitebark pine in areas where they shouldn’t.

“The notice in the Federal Register says they’re not going to designate critical habitat because the threat to (whitebark pine) is not loss of habitat,” Garrity said. “But on the Pintler Face (project) in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge (National Forest), they’re cutting whitebark pine but say they won’t cut any over 3 inches in diameter. Whitebark pine are so slow growing that there won’t be many left to replace older trees if they do that. So I think they need critical habitat.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at