The clock is ticking down on the whitebark pine tree, environmentalists warned this week.
On Tuesday, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the tree under the federal Endangered Species Act. If it is listed, the tree species would be one of very few trees on the federal list.
Across the northern Rocky Mountains, the tree faces numerous threats. The whitebark pine grows in some of the Rockies' most inhospitable and least-visited landscapes, including high-elevation ridges and remote alpine cirques.
In south-central Idaho, the tree's traditional range extends across the Smoky, Sawtooth, White Cloud, Boulder and Pioneer mountain ranges. Extending farther out, its range is distributed across much of the high-elevation western United States and in southwestern Canada.
Just about everywhere that whitebark pines exist, scientists report troubling declines. Though they point to a number of factors contributing to the tree's rapid decline, scientists say mountain pine beetle outbreaks and the arrival of an introduced threat—white pine blister rust—are chief among their concerns.
Locally, the red-needled handiwork of the mountain pine beetle has been evident in whitebark pine stands, especially where state Highway 75 crosses Galena Summit, north of Ketchum. Each summer in recent years, more whitebark pine stands have turned from green to red in local ranges.
Environmentalists charge the federal government is doing little to combat or study the problem. NRDC's Senior Wildlife Advocate Louisa Willcox said that in 2008, the U.S. Forest Service directed only about $200,000 to protect the species' health.
"The Forest Service has been chronically underfunding the work," she said.
Her group's ESA petition seeks to reverse that lack of attention by forcing the federal government to devote more resources to research and to a whitebark pine rescue effort.
Willcox, who described the situation facing the tree as a "perfect storm effect," said it faces the additional hurdle of not being visible to the average person.
"This tree lives at the roof of the Rockies," she said.
In the Wood River Valley and in other areas where it exists, the accelerating mortality of the whitebark pine—what many have called the lynchpin of the West's upper elevation ecosystem—threatens to harm the many wild species that depend on it. According to many whitebark pine researchers, the loss of these trees could also lead to the disruption of the snowpack-dependent water supplies our region relies on for irrigation and other uses.
The whitebark pine is one of five "stone pines" worldwide and the only one in North America. It occupies harsh, cold sites characterized by rocky, poorly-developed soils and snowy, wind-swept exposures.
Whitebark pine seeds are a high-fat, high-energy food source for many animal species. Red squirrels harvest cones and store them in "middens" on the forest floor. Black bears and grizzly bears raid these middens for the energy-rich food that the seeds provide. The Clark's nutcracker, a species of bird often seen in upper-elevation forests, also depends on the seeds and is largely responsible for their dispersal, as the seeds are wingless and require outside help to scatter.
The whitebark pine is also valued for watershed protection, according to U.S. Bureau of Land Management Challis Field Office ecologist Dana Perkins. In the cold, semi-arid mountain ranges of the northern Rockies, most annual precipitation falls as snow and the greatest amounts occur at high elevations. The physical position of trees on the landscape and the upswept branches of the crown provide shade to delay snowmelt and to retain snowdrifts until early to mid summer, Perkins said.
Though a few tree species have been listed under the ESA in the past—such as the Santa Cruz cypress in California—listing the whitebark pine would represent a first for the federal law. Never has such a wide-ranging tree been granted threatened or endangered status under the ESA, said NRDC Senior Media Associate Josh Mogerman.
The NRDC would like to see actions taken to chemically repel the beetle from remaining high-value trees, and to find trees that are unusually resistant to both the beetles and blister rust.