7. Jackson Hole News & Guide, “Conservationists Cheer Possible Whitebark Listing”

A favorite topic of mine from NRDC in the News.
By Cory Hatch
Endangered’ label could aid fight against beetles, blister rust.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to consider the whitebark pine for Endangered Species Act protection is a much-needed step to save the tree from extinction in a significant portion of its habitat, conservation groups say.

Fish and Wildlife officials announced Monday that they would conduct a status review of the species. The high-elevation tree has been ravaged by bark beetles and blister rust, resulting in millions of acres of dead trees across its habitat, from California to Canada.

During the status review, the Fish and Wildlife Service will collect research from whitebark pine experts to determine whether Endangered Species Act protection is warranted. That decision is expected by July 20 of next year.

Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ann Belleman will coordinate the information.

“We’ll be getting a lot of information from researchers and agencies,” Belleman said. “There’s quite a bit of research being conducted on whitebark pine.”

Belleman said the Natural Resources Defense Council petition addressed three of the five criteria for listing under the Endangered Species Act: the present or threatened destruction, modification or curtailment of its habitat or range; disease or predation; and the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms. Over the next year, researchers need to prove only one of those impacts for the species to be listed, she said.

While the species, which typically occurs at elevations above 8,500 feet in the Jackson Hole area, sees little threat from human development, Willcox said climate change has allowed naturally occurring bark beetles to have a greater impact on the tree.

Scientists think the warm weather lets the beetles survive at the higher elevations where whitebark pines live. Warmer temperatures also help beetles reproduce more often. Blister rust, an invasive species accidentally introduced to the region by people, is thought to make the trees more susceptible to a beetle infestation.

Experts also say whitebark pine trees provide shelter and soil stability for other high-elevation plant species.

Wally Macfarlane, co-founder of the Jackson-based nonprofit TreeFight, started organizing volunteers to help save whitebark pine trees earlier this year. The group uses pheromone patches with a chemical called verbenone to fool beetles into leaving a tree alone.

The status review is a great first step, said Macfarlane, who flew over the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem mapping the impacts of bark beetles last year.

“Ninety-five percent of watersheds had been impacted, and just over 50 percent had been impacted at a high level,” he said. “We’re finding that [the bark beetle infestation] is progressing.”

If the whitebark pine is protected, it will help with TreeFight’s efforts to educate people about the species.

“It sets it up for us to have a little more traction with people,” he said. “There’s still a lot to be learned, and this [status review] coincides with what we’re trying to do: get people out in the ecosystem and learning about whitebark pine.”

Getting federal protection for the tree is a good possibility, said Louise Lasley, public lands director for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

“I would not be surprised to see it listed,” she said. “All you have to do is look at some of our hillsides to see the necessity of putting it on the endangered species list.”

Lasley said listing the tree would allow researchers, not politicians, to determine how best to save the species.

“I would hope one of the things that would prevail from the listing is a slowing down of the rush to remove all the trees from the forest until we determine that it’s the best thing for the ecosystem,” she said. “I think we’re a little ahead of ourselves.”

Without oversight mandated from the Endangered Species Act, Willcox said, there’s danger of a “look before you leap mentality” when it comes to treatments.


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