HomeOutdoorsNewsWhitebark Pines, Crucial to Feeding Bears, Listed as Threatened Species

Whitebark Pines, Crucial to Feeding Bears, Listed as Threatened Species

by Lauren Boisvert
(Photo by Getty Images)

The whitebark pine is a keystone species that grow in our western National Parks, with about 70 percent of the species’ range within the United States and the remaining 30 percent in Canada. The trees feed birds and bears, are natural snow barriers, and their health is crucial to the health of the subalpine ecosystems where they grow.

Now, they are at risk of disappearing due to disease, beetle destruction, and climate change. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that the pine species is now considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In the US, the whitebark pine grows in the highest reaches of  Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, Olympic, Lassen Volcanic, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. As a keystone species in these areas, it supports many other plant and animal species in these areas. It is also influential in snow retention and spring run-off.

The nuts of the whitebark pine are incredibly nutrient-rich and crucial for grizzly bears preparing for hibernation. When there is a good crop of nuts bears go into hibernation both healthier and fatter. The decline in whitebark pines has been specifically linked to blister rust disease, mountain pine beetle infestations, and climate change, according to a report from National Parks Traveler. This could significantly affect the bear and squirrel populations.

Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Matt Hogan announced the listing on Wednesday, Dec. 14. “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 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.” 

US Fish and Wildlife Responds to Whitebark Pine Decline in National Parks, Considers Them Threatened Under ESA

The whitebark pine is a keystone species because it influences so many other plant and animal species in its habitat. Alpine conditions are harsh, and the whitebark pine creates the conditions necessary for other species to survive. But now, with climate change getting worse every day, these forests of keystone trees are being threatened.

Climate change has allowed mountain pine beetle infestations to reach the forests at high elevations. The rice grain-sized beetles were kept at bay by harsh winter conditions previously. With the planet warming, they can now infiltrate the whitebark pine.

What makes these conditions worse is that whitebark pines are slow to reproduce. Sprouting their first pinecone can take upwards of 75 years. In 1991, the Great Bear Foundation of Missoula, Montana, petitioned US Fish and Wildlife to list the trees as an endangered species. They cited the same conditions that are threatening the trees now.

This new listing under the Endangered Species Act will provide opportunities for new and continuing research into conserving the tree. It is also now illegal to possess, remove, or damage a whitebark pine on federal lands.