This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed with environmental petitioners that a high-elevation tree that is key to the Yellowstone ecosystem is threatened, advocates reported Monday, though the agency decided it lacks funds to offer it protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Monday's "warranted but precluded" ruling means scientists will ask the U.S. Forest Service to treat the whitebark pine with care until they conduct a second review of the tree's status in a year. By that time, the tree that by some measures has lost or is losing 80 percent of its footing in the Yellowstone-Teton region likely will have deteriorated further and could become a higher priority.
The whitebark pine, whose seeds are a seasonally important food for grizzly bears, has suffered for a century from the introduction of a European blister rust disease and for the past decade from an attack by mountain pine beetles, which previously could not survive at their elevations. Unlike other pines, whitebarks have not developed defenses against beetles, and some researchers believe they will be nearly gone from Yellowstone within five years.
Fish and Wildlife had not officially released its finding Monday, but Wyoming-based agency biologist Amy Nicholas confirmed that science will show the twin threats beetles killing adult trees and blister rust knocking out the young threaten the species as never before.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) petitioned the government to list the tree as threatened or endangered, arguing climate change is helping beetles thrive where they once couldn't. Although the tree's plight likely would be dire even with a protective listing, Montana-based NRDC wildlife advocate Louisa Willcox said she hopes the determination helps create momentum for action on climate change.
"Climate change and its impacts are not some remote, amorphous problem that occurs maybe in the arctic ice," she said. Its toll is felt in some of the West's most iconic landscapes, she said, including Yellowstone and the Sierra Nevada.
The attention may also help focus science dollars on the tree, which Willcox said has not traditionally attracted much attention because it is not commercially logged.
Asked whether the government's research indicates warming winters are aiding beetles in what previously were high-elevation refuges for the whitebark, Nicholas said, "Absolutely."