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Whitebark Pine Selected For Endangered Species Protection

A whitebark pine tree at Crater Lake National Park. Known as the Grandmother Tree it's the oldest known tree in the park at over 500-years-old.
NPS photo
A whitebark pine tree at Crater Lake National Park. Known as the Grandmother Tree it's the oldest known tree in the park at over 500-years-old.

A high-elevation tree called the whitebark pine was selected for possible protection under the Endangered Species Act on Tuesday. The trees range across seven western states, including Washington, Oregon and California.

The gnarled trees growing from steep, windswept slopes can be found scattered high in the Olympic and Cascade Mountains and Sierra Nevada range, as well as the northern Rockies. But a combination of threats had killed as many as 51% of the whitebark pine trees in the U.S., according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If the proposal is approved, whitebark pine would become listed as a “threatened” species under the ESA, requiring government agencies to pay special attention to the trees when making management decisions and raising the profile of the species, which would increase funding for restoration efforts to save the whitebark pine.

“Endangered Species Act protection is really important for highlighting the threats to this tree and hopefully it’ll add resources and political will to ongoing efforts to save and restore it,” says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Threats to the whitebark pine include a fungus called white pine blister rust, as well as infestations of mountain pine beetles and severe wildfires, both exacerbated by climate change. The tree’s ESA protection was discussed as long ago as 1991, Greenwald says.

Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation
2019 Map of U.S. Distribution of Whitebark Pine

Whitebark pine are known as a keystone species because of their important role supporting other plant and animal biodiversity.

“It’s a keystone because it enables biodiversity, it enables forest development, and it is a foundation species that provides ecosystem services,” says to Diana Tomback, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Colorado Denver, who studies the trees.

Their seeds feed black bears and grizzly bears, birds including the Clark’s nutcracker and other rodents. They shelter other conifer trees and retain snowmelt at high-elevations.

“We can’t let this widespread, iconic species, with all these relationships, with other animals like the nutcracker and grizzly bear, we can’t let it go down. Because we will be impoverished,” Tomback says.

The threatened species announcement begins a 60-day public comment period about the tree. Federal agencies have one year to finalization the listing.

Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity says it’s important for species like the whitebark pine to get this protection to show the impact of a disease like white pine blister rust and climate change, which could lead to the disappearance of the species across the west.

“We need to be marking the impacts of climate change. I think this is very much a canary in the coalmine situation,” he says.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.