Whitebark pines – the ‘quintessential wilderness tree’ – added to the Endangered Species List
The West’s iconic whitebark pine trees are in trouble. The federal government announced Wednesday it’s designating whitebark pine trees as threatened and placed the trees on the Endangered Species List.
Whitebark pine trees in the Northwest face a number of threats from climate change, encroachment of other trees, hungry mountain pine beetles, and white pine blister rust, a fungal disease caused by an invasive pathogen.
“This is a species that has been of concern for a very, very long time,” said Daniel Omdal, a forest pathologist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. “Some would argue that the listing is long overdue.”
According to the U.S. Forest Service, whitebark pine trees are dying faster than the trees naturally reproduce. A recent study found 51% of all standing whitebark pine trees in the United States are dead.
If you’ve backpacked in the Northwest’s high mountaintops or spent time at Oregon’s Crater Lake, you’ve likely seen whitebark pine trees, said Jen Hooke, a botanist at Crater Lake National Park.
“I think this is a very charismatic tree. It means a lot to people. This tree exists in places that people go to renew themselves, so I think this tree is really special for a lot of people in a lot of ways,” Hooke said.
Whitebark pine trees are known as a foundational species, Hooke said, which means when whitebark pines establish themselves in an area, they allow other species to start to grow.
“They set the stage. They’re able to establish in very harsh places without a lot of vegetation cover. Once they get established, then they provide the shade and the shelter for other species to establish around them,” she said.
In addition, she said, whitebark pine trees have an open crown, which allows light to seep through. That means a diversity of species can grow near the whitebark pines, which also means a variety of wildlife will come to the area.
Whitebark pines are an integral part of the park, Hooke said in an earlier interview.
“I think it would be an empty, sad place without whitebark pine,” Hooke said. “This is the highest mountain in the park, Mount Scott, in front of us here. The primary tree cover is whitebark pine. You can see the mountain hemlock, which are the pointy crowns, and the whitebark, which are rounder. Imagine all of that devoid of trees. It would be a huge change.”
This threatened species listing is an effort to prevent further loss of whitebark pine trees and the many species that depend upon the trees.
“As a keystone species of the West, extending Endangered Species Act protections to whitebark pine is critical to not only the tree itself but also the numerous plants, animals, and watersheds that it supports,” said Matt Hogan in a statement. Hogan is the regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The cones of whitebark pine trees provide a source of high-protein for lots of wildlife. Some tribes consider the seeds a delicacy.
Whitebark pine stands also slow snowmelt and prevent soil erosion, said Diana Tomback, the policy and outreach coordinator for the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.
“Whitebark pine really enables the snowmelt to be protracted, so you get downstream flow through most of the summer,” Tomback said. “This is really important economically for the farmlands and ranchlands below whitebark pine.”
These trees also grow on steep, rocky slopes, which sometimes can help prevent avalanches, she said.
“These are all ecosystem services provided by whitebark pine, and we are losing these,” she said.
The biggest threat to the trees is white pine blister rust, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The fungus is a parasite that infects the tree through its needles, Omdal said.
Healthy trees can drop the needles before the fungus works its way through the tree. However, most whitebark pine trees don’t have that ability, he said.
That allows the fungus to creep along the branches and around the stem.
“Because it’s a parasite, it’s rotting the wood. It’s disrupting the movement of sugars and water up and down the stem. When infection occurs on the mainstem over a period of time, then the tree gets girdled, or strangled, if you will,” Omdal said.
Now, researchers are testing for families of whitebark pine trees that are resistant to blister rust, Omdal said.
“That’s our hope, that we can find those families that have those genes that confer a level of resistance to the pathogen,” he said.
Additional funding from the threatened species listing could help shortcut the process to identify blister-rust resistant trees, Tomback said. Right now, the technology is decades old, but scientists are working to sequence the whitebark pine genome, she said. That could help develop new, less expensive technology, she said.
“Blister rust resistance is going to be the key to restoring whitebark pine,” Tomback said.
In March 2023, the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation plans to release a national whitebark pine restoration plan, which will prioritize up to 30% of whitebark pine for priority restoration among federal agencies and tribes.
This listing as a threatened species also will allow federal and state agencies to continue developing restoration plans, which would include collecting seedlings, identifying suitable locations for planting whitebark pines, and genetically identifying unique families, Omdal said.
“It takes a lot of hands to do the heavy lifting required here,” he said. “It’s sort of bittersweet that the designation is finally here. It’s a recognition that this is a species that’s truly imperiled. At the same time, support will come as a result of this listing that will hopefully benefit the species over time.”
While Crater Lake National Park has worked for years as if the trees were already threatened, Hooke said additional funding could help the park thin forest stands after years of wildfire suppression. That would help make trees more resilient to the inevitable wildfire that will burn through the park, she said.
Hooke said the listing announcement made her feel slightly emotional as she realized the gravity of the moment. Saving these trees has been a national and international effort, she said.
“I do have hope that we’re going to make a difference,” Hooke said of the work to save the trees. “This species is a tough species. It’s under siege from so many factors, but I am optimistic that it’s going to stay with us and that we’re going to be able to hold on to it.”