BILLING, Mont. (AP) — Whitebark pines can live for more than 1,000 years, but in just two decades, more than a quarter of the trees that are a key food source for some grizzly bears have died from disease, the change climate, forest fires and voracious beetles. Government officials said they planned to announce federal protections on Wednesday.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service will designate the whitebark pine as potentially threatened with extinction, according to details obtained by The Associated Press. the late recognition of the severe decline of the tree it will require officials to draw up a recovery plan and carry out restoration work.
Whitebark pines are found at elevations up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters), conditions too harsh for most trees to survive.
A non-native fungus, white pine blister rust, has been killing whitebark pines for a century and they have been largely eliminated in some areas. That includes the eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park, where tree seeds are a food source for threatened brown bears.
More recently, the trees have proven vulnerable to barking beetles that have killed millions of acres of forest and climate change which scientists say is responsible for more severe wildfire seasons.
The trees are found on 126,000 square miles (326,164 square kilometers) of land in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and western Canada.
Wildlife officials declined to designate which forest habitats are critical to the tree’s survival, falling short of what some environmentalists argue is needed. An estimated 88% of its habitat is federally owned, with most of that area managed by the US Forest Service.
Despite the threats, whitebark pine populations remain resilient enough to withstand disease and other problems for decades, said Alexandra Kasdin of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We found that it is likely to be endangered in the foreseeable future, not that it is endangered now,” Kasdin said. “The species is still relatively widespread throughout its extensive range.”
A 2009 court ruling reinstating protections for Yellowstone’s bears cited the tree’s decline in part, though government studies later concluded that grizzly bears might find other things to eat.
That has complicated government efforts to declare grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area a recovered species that no longer need federal protection. Grizzlies raid caches of white-barked pine cones that are hidden by squirrels and devour the seeds inside the cones to fatten up for the winter.
Environmentalists had petitioned the government in 1991 and again in 2008 to protect the trees. After being sued for failing to take action to protect the pines, wildlife officials in 2011 acknowledged that whitebark pines needed protection, but took no immediate action, saying other species faced more immediate threats.
The protections adopted Wednesday were proposed two years ago. The final rule includes new provisions that allow members of Native American tribes to collect whitebark pine seeds for ceremonial or traditional use.
Researchers and private groups are working with federal officials on plans to collect cones from trees resistant to blister rust, grow the seeds in greenhouses, and then replant them in the landscape.
“There is hope here,” said Diana Tomback, a biology professor at the University of Colorado Denver and policy director for the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.
“We know how to find genetic resistance to white pine blister rust, and there are several whitebark pines that have it. They will be the basis of a planting strategy,” he said.
A draft restoration plan is expected early next year.
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