High-elevation pine trees that feed grizzly bears are under threat due to climate change, voracious beetles, and diseases. Reports show that the trees have been all but wiped out in some areas, including Yellowstone National Park’s eastern edge.
According to a 2018 study by U.S. Forest Service, more than half of the country’s whitebark pines are now dead.
Over recent decades, there has been a massive decline in the tree’s population. Whitebark pine trees can be found across 126,000 square miles of land in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and western Canada.
Environmentalists are campaigning for appropriate actions to save the trees and the animal species that rely on them. They had filed petitions in 1991 and again in 2008 for the government to protect the trees.
(Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images) Many whitebark pines are threatened by blister rusts, beetle attacks, and climate change.
Although considerably late, a Fish and Wildlife proposal, scheduled for publication on Wednesday, aims to protect the whitebark pine tree as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. This marks an important stage for restoration work.
Government officials, however, said that they do not plan to designate which forest habitats are critical to the tree’s survival.
The government’s proposal noted the imminent threats to the whitebark pine tree, one of the many plants seen to be affected by climate change faster than they can adapt.
Federal workers are also working with researchers and private groups to lay out plans to collect cones from trees resistant to blister rust. They plan to grow the seeds in greenhouses before planting them back on the landscape.
READ: Scientists Use Assisted Migration to Rescue Trees From Inhospitable Climate Conditions
Whitebark pine tree, a coniferous tree native to the western United States and Canada mountains, can live up to 1,000 years.
It grows in conditions that are too harsh for other trees to survive, such in areas found at elevations up to 12,000 feet.
The trees stand on harsh, dry terrain and are found with other conifers in moister and more protected sites.
For a century, these trees have been declining due to several stressors. A nonnative fungus, Cronartium ribicola, causes white pine blister rust. It damages and eventually kills infected trees.
The trees are also discovered to be vulnerable to bark beetles, which killed millions of forest acres. Moreover, outbreaks of native mountain pine beetle decimate infested whitebark pine forests.
As temperatures grow warmer, pine beetles can reproduce in one-year rather than multi-year cycles.
Severe wildfire seasons caused by climate change also imperils the survival of these trees. Due to warmer and drier conditions, scientists believe that wildfire incidence in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will be more frequent.
In 2011, wildlife officials acknowledged the need to protect whitebark pine trees. This came after they were sued for failing to take steps to protect the threatened trees. However, the officials still did not take any immediate action, claiming that other species faced more immediate threats.
READ: Warming Climate Allows Mountain Pine Beetles to Invade Defenseless Ecosystems
Why Saving the Pine Trees is Important
Whitebark pine tree serves as an important source of food for grizzly bears. Birds and mammals also feed on the seeds produced by the tree in its cones. As a high-energy food source for animals, these trees’ seeds help grizzlies fatten up for winter.
The tree is considered a keystone species in high mountain ecosystems as they protect watersheds and regulate snowmelt runoffs. Their roots also help prevent soil erosion by stabilizing rocky and poorly developed soils.
Besides, these pine trees also create habitats favorable to other species.
The proposed course of action to protect this tree species is vital to assist its regeneration. The draft of the nationwide restoration project is expected before the end of 2021.
READ: Australia’s Last-Standing ‘Dinosaur Trees’ Were Saved From Bushfires Through a Secret Mission
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