Groups seek protection of Whitebark Pine under the ESA

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and WildWest Institute filed a lawsuit yesterday in Federal District Court in Missoula against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in response to the FWS’s July 2011 decision that the whitebark pine is “warranted for listing as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act” but precluded by higher priority actions.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already concluded that whitebark pine faces numerous threats, including climate change, that are so pressing that whitebark pine is in danger of extinction,” said Mike Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “This is the first time the federal government has declared a widespread tree species in danger of imminent extinction from climate change.  Since the Forest Service still has proposals to clearcut whitebark pine, all we’re doing is asking the court to move the listing process along a little faster so we can protect what’s left under the Endangered Species Act.”

The plaintiffs are requesting that the Court declare the agency’s decision is contrary to law, set aside or remand the decision, and compel the agency to promptly set a reasonable date to issue a proposed Endangered Species listing rule for whitebark pine.

Whitebark pine is a slow-growing, longed-life tree with life spans up to 500 years and sometimes more than 1000 years.  Whitebark pine is a keystone — or foundation — species in western North America where it increases biodiversity and contributes to critical ecosystem functions.  Those include providing highly-nutritious seeds for more than 20 different species including Clark’s Nutcracker, grizzly bears, black bears, Steller’s Jay, and Pine Grosbeak.

“People who spend time in the high-country realize that whitebark pine are dying at alarming rates due to impacts associated with climate change,” explained Matthew Koehler, with the WildWest Institute.  “We cannot sit back, do nothing, and watch a critically important component of our high-country ecosystem just disappear and go extinct before our eyes.  This isn’t just about the whitebark pine, but about the future viability of these high country ecosystems, including the species that rely upon that habitat such as grizzly bears and Clark’s Nutcrackers.”

The role the pine seeds play in the ecosystem is fascinating.  Clark’s nutcrackers crack open the pine cones and collect the seeds in specialized throat pouches.  The birds then cache the seeds in small piles in numerous shallow holes on the forest floor.  If the Clark’s nutcrackers, or other wildlife species, don’t come back to eat all the seeds, new trees sprout.  Additionally, red squirrels collect and bury larges caches of whole pine cones in middens.  Grizzly bears unearth the caches, carefully pry off the scales of the pine cones with their claws, and then pull out the seeds with their tongues.  Studies in the Yellowstone National Park area show that grizzly bears obtain one-quarter to two-thirds of their energy from the seeds.  The 30-50% fat content from whitebark pine seeds promotes survival and reproduction of female grizzly bears that rely on this fat not only to hibernate, but also to support lactation.  When pine seeds are plentiful, grizzly bears have more surviving cubs.  And in years when pine seeds are scarce, the result is more conflicts with humans and more dead grizzly bears.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that climate change will result in the whitebark pine population shrinking to less than 3% of its current U.S. distribution by the end of the century.

Copy of complaint:

5 thoughts on “Groups seek protection of Whitebark Pine under the ESA”

  1. Matt,

    When you say:

    “People who spend time in the high-country realize that whitebark pine are dying at alarming rates due to impacts associated with climate change,” explained Matthew Koehler, with the WildWest Institute. “We cannot sit back, do nothing, and watch a critically important component of our high-country ecosystem just disappear and go extinct before our eyes….”

    My initial reaction was that ya’ll are spending too much time in the “high” country. Legal in some states I guess. John Denver would be a happy man….

    Just smile at the above, nothing personal…you walked into that one.

    In all seriousness, I am concerned with where you / AWR hope to go with a listing for WBP?

    Seems the potential for unintended consequences (trite, but apropos) and contradictory direction is very high if WBP were listed, particularly with regards to management of naturally occuring wildfire.

    We would both agree that allowing natural fires to burn (where appropriate-most of Wilderness areas in N. Rockies) is the best “restoration” strategy we public land managers could/should employ (as opposed to “massive logging” projects).

    Most WBP restoration strategies (best available science) cite protection of WBP refugia from wildfire as a priority. You’re sharp and can goodle it…have it all on my work ‘puter but not here…happy to provide it later.

    Restoration strategies also cite implementation of prescribed fire as a priority to reduce competition from subapline fir and lodgepole pine.

    Most WBP habitat is in the highest elevations here in the N. Rockies and is either Roadless or Wilderness.

    So let’s think about the ramifications…..

    WBP is listed and critical habitat (refugia) is designated. That habitat must be protected including protections from wildfire. No backing out here eco-warriors…the rediculous policy that would filter down to the field would be, well….rediculous. You think last year’s (hopefully not this year’s) fire policy was goofy, just wait till you throw in some sort of ESA protections into the mix…

    Are you willing to advocate for increased fire suppression in Roadless/Wilderness areas to protect WBP refugia? Seems to be a major sticking point with some of the BOD of AWR…(who ave admitted to me personally they don’t think WBP restoration is probable – natural or otherwise)

    Strategies for WBP restoration include Rx fire…OK, juxstapose that over Roadless and Wilderness values. Where do we draw the line? As a result of listing would you be willing to advocate for projects that would allow ignitions of Rx fire in Roadless/Wilderness? Seems to be a major sticking point with some of the BOD of AWR…

    What about Lynx? Which habitat would trump which? Go ahead and try to explain that one Matt. If you can, I guarantee you could you can have a lucrative job! (OK maybe just good benefits)

    If you all are chasing this as a catalyst for some sort of climate change regulatory enforcements I wish you well and cast no judgement. I will leave you with this though:!

  2. Matthew.. I also would like to understand what management practices you expect might change based on the listing.. or exactly what the point is?

    If the climate is changing so much that WPB can’t survive, it’s difficult to understand what else people could do to keep that from happening other than cutting trees down in a place that models show will change to the conditions WPB likes (???) and planting them there (and protecting them from rust??).

    All: here is a link to the restoration strategy for Whitebark Pine as described by some of the leading scientists in the field

    It is from June 2012 so it seems to be the “best available science.”

    Restoration treatments from page 36

    3. Save seed sources. Mature, seed-producing, putatively rust-resistant whitebark pine trees in regions that are experiencing rapid decline must be protected from other native or exotic disturbances so that the apparent rust-resistant seeds can be harvested in the future. These disturbances include bark beetles, unwanted wildland fire, and timber cutting. Identification and prioritization of areas that contain rust-resistant and genetically diverse trees can be accomplished with comprehensive genetics profiles using data generated from regional genetics programs and collaborative partnerships with research.
    4. Employ restoration treatments. Areas where whitebark pine forests are declining due to insects, disease, or advanced succession should be considered for restoration treatments to create sustainable whitebark pine populations. Proactive restoration includes managing to limit the spread of blister rust; using fire in successional advanced communities to encourage whitebark pine regeneration; implementing silvicultural cuttings to reduce competing vegetation to increase the vigor of surviving trees and reduce the likelihood of mountain pine beetle attacks; planting rust-resistant seedlings to accelerate the effects of selection; and promoting natural regeneration and diverse age class structures to maintain ecosystem function and reduce landscape level beetle hazard, and to provide large populations for selection for rust resistance.

    This is from page 46.

    First, we assume that because whitebark pine’s decline is due to an exotic disease, proactive management is needed to ensure that whitebark pine is sustained on future landscapes and restoration should be based on credible science (Hobbs and Cramer 2008). Some people question the need for active restoration management, especially in ecosystems with exotic introductions (Higgs 1997) or wilderness settings (Landres 2010), but we feel that both “reactive” restoration to current conditions and proactive restoration in anticipation of losses are critical for long-term whitebark pine conservation (Schoettle and Sniezko 2007; Sniezko and others 2004). Others suggest a trial-and-error or “tinkering” approach over scientific evidence (Cabin 2007), but we feel that restoration treatments based on the most current scientific information will have the greatest success and will be the most efficient.

    Here’s a section on page 41 about WPB and wilderness:

    Currently, the only activities related to whitebark pine restoration that are occurring in wilderness are monitoring and inventory activities, caging and collecting cones from blister rust-resistant trees, and allowing controlled wildfire to restore successionally advanced whitebark pine stands. Cone collection has low impacts and does not require any manipulation or prohibited activity, and wildfires are encouraged
    because they are supported by law and policy and have many resource benefits. Other activities that have been suggested but not implemented are planting of putatively blister rust-resistant seedlings, sowing blister rust-resistant seeds, mechanical thinning, and prescribed fire. All of these activities involve manipulation that would typically not be allowed in wilderness. Prior to any of these activities being implemented, the following steps must be taken:

    Determine that the loss of whitebark pine is due, in fact, to human intervention.

    Determine that restoration objectives cannot be accomplished entirely outside of wilderness.

    Determine if there is a reasonable expectation that human intervention will result in a significant improvement in whitebark pine survival.

    Determine if the analysis has proven that whitebark pine restoration actions are the minimum requirement or minimum tool necessary to meet the objectives.

    Determine the adverse effects of restoration actions on the other qualities of wilderness character (untrammeled, undeveloped, and outstanding opportunities).

    Determine if the timing, frequency, location, or intensity of the restoration actions can be altered to mitigate these adverse effects.

    Determine if the activity can be accomplished without the support of motorized equipment or mechanical transport.
    If the project passes these tests, a National Environmental Policy Act environmental assessment and analysis will need to be completed, including public scoping.
    One major restoration activity that is specifically excluded
    by policy from Forest Service Wilderness Areas is tree planting, and especially planting rust-resistant whitebark pine seedlings. Keane and Parsons (2010a) have found that planting whitebark pine seedlings in areas of high mortality of mature, seed-producing tree mortality may be essential for preventing local extirpation. On the other hand, Landres (2010) presented a rationale for taking a “hands off” approach
    to restoration and allowing whitebark pine to further decline. Since nearly half of whitebark pine’s range occurs in wilderness or protected settings, the ability to plant seedlings or seed may have vast implications to the success of range-wide restoration strategies.

  3. Sharon and JZ ask some good questions. Specially, Sharon asked, “I also would like to understand what management practices you expect might change based on the listing.. or exactly what the point is?”

    First, at this point, it’s good to remember that the Forest Service is already doing some burning and clearcutting and saying it is for whitebark pine. Second, a Forest Service botanist is about to publish a paper in which she surveyed whitebark pine planting efforts on National Forests across the Northern Rockies and figured out what worked best for regeneration. It turns out no one had really done this before.

    From that research, turns out burning was bad for regeneration. Also turns out that regeneration was best where there was 50-80% canopy cover, not 0%, or 25% canopy cover. Basically this calls into question both current management techniques, i.e burning and clearcutting. Also turns out that any “double disturbance” is bad, so logging after a beetle infestation, burning after logging, etc. We believe this paper and new research will be important for crafting appropriate management recommendations for replanting efforts. Hopefully the Forest Service cannot ignore it because it will be a Forest Service research paper.

    Our hope is that the combination of an ESA listing (which again, the USFWS already found to be “warranted by precluded”) and new, emerging research about how best to regenerate and plant whitebark pine will put an end to questionable Forest Service management techniques that are currently/already being used in the name of whitebark pine. Thanks for asking.

  4. Matthew… if there is a science question, based on this new information, wouldn’t it be better for everyone concerned (including the scientists who did the previous work) to have a larger discussion… perhaps on the internet, including practitioners and people in local communities that go our and see the WPB’s all the time as they go hunting or driving…a facilitated dialogue about what works and what doesn’t? (hmm.. another project for a “scientific conflict resolution” business.)

    Do you see what the costs would be to groups and to the government compared to the “let’s file a lawsuit” and do you see who is ultimately then empowered to make decisions (lawyers and judges) who aren’t particularly knowledgeable about WPB, and may have to rule on the equivalent of “dueling science” (and local knowledge is not even granted a seat at the legal table)?

    Why don’t all knowledegeable people engage in a discussion about their observations and the best management practices.. because people certainly aren’t cutting WPB for sawmills so I don’t get what the FS ulterior motives might be.

    Filing a lawsuit with the FWS to get the FS to use scientific information that isn’t published yet.. sounds a little premature..

    If people really wanted the “best science” I think that’s what they would: do have a public conversation and explore all the relevant pieces of research and practitioner observation. Then if the FS doesn’t follow it, that would be time for a lawsuit IMHO.

  5. Sharon, perhaps you should review the lawsuit again, as there are some parts of it that help answer some of your questions. And most everything I’m writing below comes directly from the info in the lawsuit. But, honestly, I don’t know how to answer some of these questions which you basically have been framing, “wouldn’t it be better if the world worked this way, even though it doesn’t work this way?”

    As you’ll see, the USFWS already determined in July 2011, after a 12 month review, “After review of all available scientific and commercial information, we find that listing P. albicaulis (whitebark pine) as threatened or endangered is warranted. However, currently listing P. albicaulis is precluded by higher priority actions to amend the Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants.”

    As you are likely aware, Congress required the USFWS to establish a “Listing Priority Number” to each species depending on how seriously it is being threatened. The numbers run from 1 (highest priority) to 12 (lowest priority). This was part of an effort to “make the most appropriate use of the limited resources available to implement” the ESA.

    The USFWS assigns Listing Priority Number 2 to whitebark pine based on the its finding that the species faces threats that are of high magnitude and are imminent. Again, one a scale of 1 to 12, coming in at number 2 means it’s a pretty darn high priority, or at least should be.

    Furthermore, there are currently no species with LPN 1 waiting to be listed, nor were there any LPN 1 species at the time of the USFWS’ July 2011 decision. In other words, there are no species with a higher priority Listing Priority Number than whitebark pine.

    Furthermore, in the section of its July 2011 decision where the USFWS lists the “high Priority Listing Actions” that will receive funding for listing in the FY 2010 or 2011 – instead of whitebark pine – the USFWS lists 39 species with Listing Priority Numbers between 3 and 12. In other words, species with LPN between 3 and 12 do not face greater threats than whitebark pine, which has a LPN of 2.

    The lawsuit continues to go into lots of details about where the agency is currently spending it’s money and time and how 40% of the funding in FY 2010/11 actually went to species that have a lower priority than whitebark pine. Again, I’d encourage people to read the actual lawsuit, view all the info and then ask questions. Because having me simply re-type what’s in the lawsuit here isn’t really a homework assignment I should be doing for you. Thanks.


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