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Iconic whitebark pine trees are endangered

The whitebark pine is one of the few trees that can survive in the cold, wind-swept heights of the Rocky Mountains and other western mountain ranges, clinging to steep slopes for centuries, even in the most extreme environments. However, on Wednesday, December 14, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that they will protect this iconic tree under the Endangered Species Act, warning that the whitebark is currently facing a variety of menaces, including a deadly fungus, a hungry beetle, massive wildfires, and a changing climate.

“As a keystone species of the West, extending ESA protections to the whitebark pine is critical to not only the tree itself, but also the numerous plants, animals, and watersheds that it supports,” said Matt Hogan, a regional director at the agency.

The whitebark pine plays a major role in high-altitude ecosystems, slowing runoff from melting snow, and providing food for a variety of animals, ranging from squirrels to grizzly bears. Now, an invasive fungus called the white pine blister rust is sweeping through the tree’s range of over 80 million acres in the United States and Canada, greatly endangering the pines. In addition, other threats include a native beetle that burrows into its bark, as well as fiercer wildfires fueled by a warming climate.

“The listing means that whitebark pine is the first widely distributed tree that the federal government has clearly pegged as a climate casualty — sadly, as climate change worsens, it will not be the last,” said Sylvia Fallon, a senior director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group that already petitioned the agency to protect the tree over a decade ago.

With this new listing, officials and scientists hope to spark new research into how to save this species and take protective measures against those who chop down the tree on federal lands. Moreover, by growing and planting seedlings which are resistant to the fungus, the pine could be restored in many areas of its range.

“We do have the tools to restore whitebark pine,” concluded Diana Tomback, the policy and outreach coordinator at the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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