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Feds list whitebark pine as threatened under Endangered Species Act – The Washington Post

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The whitebark pine is one of a handful of trees that thrive in the cold, wind-swept heights of the Rockies and other rugged western mountain ranges, clinging to slopes for centuries even in the most extreme alpine environments.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it will protect the whitebark pine under the Endangered Species Act, warning that a number of menaces — a deadly fungus, a hungry beetle, fiercer wildfires and a changing climate — are all conspiring to threaten the hardy tree with extinction.

“As a keystone species of the West, extending ESA protections to whitebark pine is critical to not only the tree itself, but also the numerous plants, animals, and watersheds that it supports,” Matt Hogan, a regional director at the agency, said in a statement.

By finalizing a decision to list the tree as threatened, wildlife managers are warning it is likely to become endangered in the near future unless conditions improve. The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed protecting the tree in 2020, shortly before former president Donald Trump left office.

The pine plays a key role in rugged, high-altitude ecosystems, slowing runoff from snowmelt and providing food for everything including grizzlies and squirrels. The tree depends on a mountain bird called the Clark’s nutcracker to disperse its seeds.

For many pines, the protections arrive too late. More than half of the pines still standing are already dead, federal officials say.

White pine blister rust, an invasive fungus sweeping through the tree’s range of more than 80 million acres in the United States and Canada, poses the greatest threat to its survival. But other risks include a native beetle that burrows into bark and fiercer wildfires fueled by climate change.

“The listing means that whitebark pine is the first widely distributed tree that the federal government has clearly pegged as a climate casualty — sadly, as climate change worsens, it will not be the last,” said Sylvia Fallon, a senior director of Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group that petitioned the agency for protections more than a decade ago.

With the listing, federal wildlife officials hope to spark new research into saving the species and to punish those who chop down the tree on federal lands. In many circumstances, it will remain legal to remove the pines on land not controlled by the federal government.

By growing and planting seedlings that are likely to be resistant to the rust, the species can be restored in many part of its range, said Diana Tomback, policy and outreach coordinator at the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and professor of integrative biology at the University of Colorado at Denver who has studied the tree since the 1970s.

“We do have the tools to restore whitebark pine,” Tomback said.

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