Efforts to save a rugged and iconic tree of the American West are in the spotlight after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the whitebark pine as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The tree is vital to ecosystems around the West. In seven states and Canada, it stretches across more than 80 million acres of land in areas where other conifer trees can't survive.
“It’s really not your ordinary forest conifer,” said Diana Tomback, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Colorado Denver and a founding director of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.
Tomback says the whitebark pine is very tolerant of poor soils, steep slopes and windswept sites, “so it can grow at some of the highest elevations of any conifer.”
It is also a keystone species. That means other species rely on it for their own health and survival. Tomback says the whitebark pine promotes biodiversity by providing food for small birds, small mammals and grizzly and black bears from its large, nutritious seeds. It also plays a crucial role in wildfire recovery, creating environments that are more hospitable for the regrowth of other vegetation. And the treeline communities it forms protect watersheds.
Tomback has been working on ambitious plans to restore the whitebark pine for some time. In recent years, the tree has declined by more than 50%. It’s threatened by an invasive fungus that causes the disease white pine blister rust, the mountain pine beetle, and the effects of climate change, such as shifting fire patterns.
The Trump administration’s announcement stands in contrast to dozens of environmental rollbacks. But Tomback says people in federal agencies have long been focused on the whitebark pine. And it may have helped that “it is not a commercial tree. There’s no economic impacts.”
Tomback says that makes the proposal “a win-win.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.