Billings, Mont. (AP) – Whitebark pines may live more than 1,000 years, but in just two decades more than a quarter of the trees that are a key food source for some grizzly bears have been killed by disease, climate change, wildfires and voracious beetles, government officials said they planned to announce the federal protections Wednesday.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service will designate the whitebark pine as potentially endangered, according to details obtained by the Associated Press. Belated recognition of the tree’s severe decline will require officials to come up with a recovery plan and continue restoration work.
Whitebark pines are found at elevations of up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters), conditions too harsh for most trees to survive.
A non-native fungus, white pine bubble rust, has been killing whitebark pines for a century and they have been largely wiped out in areas. This includes the eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park, where tree seeds are a food source for endangered grizzly bears.
More recently, trees have proven vulnerable to bark beetles that have killed millions of acres of forest, and to climate change that scientists say is responsible for more severe fire seasons.
The trees are found on 126,000 square miles (326,164 square kilometers) of land in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Western Canada.
Wildlife officials have declined to designate which forest habitats are critical to the tree’s survival, stopping short of what some conservationists say is necessary. An estimated 88% of their habitat is federally owned, with most of that area managed by the United States Forest Service.
Despite the threats, whitebark pine populations remain resilient enough to resist disease and other problems for decades, said Alexandra Kasdin of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We found that it is likely to be critically endangered in the near future, not critically endangered now,” Kasdin said. “The species is still relatively widespread throughout its large range.”
A 2009 court ruling that reinstated Yellowstone’s bear protections cited the tree’s decline in part, though government studies later concluded that grizzlies may find other things to eat.
This has complicated government efforts to declare grizzlies in the Yellowstone area as a recovered species no longer in need of federal protection. Grizzlies raid deposits of white-barked pine cones that are hidden from squirrels and gobble up the seeds inside the cones to fatten up 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, wildlife officials acknowledged in 2011 that whitebark pines needed protection, but took no immediate action, saying other species have faced more immediate threats.
The safeguards adopted on Wednesday had been proposed two years ago. The final rule includes new provisions that allow members of Native American tribes to harvest seeds from whitebark pine for ceremonial or traditional use.
Researchers and private groups are working with federal officials on plans to harvest cones from rust-resistant trees, grow the seeds in greenhouses, and then replant them in the landscape.
“There is hope here,” said Diana Tomback, a University of Colorado Denver biology professor and policy director for the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.
“We know how to find genetic resistance to white pine bubble rust, and there are a number of whitebark pine trees that have it. They will be the basis of a planting strategy,” she said.
A draft of the restoration plan is expected early next year.
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