Whitebark Lawsuit Redux: Groups Appeal

Whitebark pine cones are caged to protect them from Clark's nutcrackers. by USDA Forest Service
Whitebark pine cones are caged to protect them from Clark’s nutcrackers. by USDA Forest Service

Here’s a story from the Bozeman Chronicle and below is an excerpt.

In July 2011, the agency determined that whitebark pine forests have enough threats, such as climate change, to warrant listing.

However, the USFWS was not abusing its power or being arbitrary when it decided other species have a higher priority for listing, said U.S. District Judge Dana Christiansen of Missoula in his April 25 ruling.

The USFWS has identified more than 260 species that qualify for Endangered Species Act protections but are yet to be listed.

In their appeal filed Friday, the two groups asked the appeals court to declare the decision to delay listing as illegal and to order the agency to list the whitebark pine by a set date.

“The FWS has already found that whitebark pine trees are going extinct due to global warming,” said Mike Garrity, AWR executive director. “Whitebark pine seeds are an important food source for grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We are going to keep fighting to keep whitebark pines from going extinct because Yellowstone grizzly bears are so dependent on them.“

The U.S. Forest Service estimated that climate change would result in the whitebark-pine population shrinking to less than 3 percent of its current range by the end of the century.

However, the Forest Service still has proposals to clearcut whitebark pine stands, Garrity said.

When whitebark pine trees were more numerous, grizzly bears’ diets could be as much as 75 percent pine nuts, said whitebark pine expert Jesse Logan.

But since 2005, pine beetles and white blister rust, a fungus, have been decimating whitebark pine forests in the greater Yellowstone area, especially at lower elevations.

2009, 95 percent of the stands had some infestation. As a result, stands in 18 of 22 mountain ranges in the greater Yellowstone area are nearly gone.

Some scientists say that grizzly bears have historically sought out high-fat whitebark-pine nuts as an autumn food source but are now adapting to use other foods as whitebark pine trees die out.

The difference between the legal aspects of ESA, what goes on that all can see in Physical World, and what people say in news stories (perhaps simplified?) can lead to a great deal of confusion in my mind, and this is an example.

For example, 1) did FWS really say whitebark pine would go extinct due to climate change? Is that the same data that the Forest Service said it would be 3% of its natural range? If whitebark’s original range is very broad, then 3% could be many acres. When is the criterion “going extinct” versus “populations are greatly reduced”? Who decides exactly what “greatly” is for these purposes?

2) That would be a projection based on many assumptions.. probably all of which are open to different points of view. We tree people know it’s not that easy to predict how trees will respond to unknown future events.

For example, how do they know it won’t adapt through time? Many folks have predicted that many species (including WWP) would be wiped out by diseases and natural selection seems to have worked pretty well. We know that these things are impossible to predict with any accuracy, so…. we need to rely on someone’s judgment on what the risk is and what could be done that would work. But is a lawsuit the best way to arrive at that? (I had personal experience with some scientists wanting to list sugar pine. The scientists are retired, but sugar pine is still doing fine.)

3) And if it’s really climate change and not BBs or blister rust, how on earth are any physical actions taken by FWS or the FS going to help? If we look at what Garrity appears to be asking for, it is for the FS to stop clearcutting WBP.

4) But I don’t know why the FS would clearcut WBP, certainly not for timber. Does anyone have links to any FS projects where this is proposed?

5) Finally, even if you grant all the above, which I don’t, many scientists think it’s too late to turn climate change around (if that’s the ultimate fix to the situation).. so.. are we spending money on the ESA equivalent of beating dead horses? And who but FWS should decide which dead horses to pick?

Perhaps readers know the answers to these questions.

While looking for a photo, I ran across this study which said that the whitebark was experiencing mortality in 1993 (20 years ago, now) due to BR and BBs and successional replacement, and more prescribed burning was/is(?) needed. Could a listing make the FS do more prescribed burning? But that’s already part of their restoration plan..

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), an important producer of food for wildlife, is decreasing in abundance in western Montana due to attacks by the white pine blister rust fungus (Cronartium ribicola), epidemics of mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) and successional replacement mainly by subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa). Plots established in 1971 were remeasured in 1991 and 1992 to determine the rate and causes of whitebark pine mortality. Mortality rates averaged 42% over the last 20 yr. indicating a rapid decline in whitebark pine populations of western Montana. This decline is most pronounced in northwestern Montana with the southward extension of heaviest mortality centered along the continental divide and Bitterroot Mountain range. Management treatments such as prescribed fire can serve to maintain whitebark pine in the landscape. West. J. Appl. For. 8(2):44-47.

3 thoughts on “Whitebark Lawsuit Redux: Groups Appeal”

  1. Indeed, if we could “magically fix” climate change (if it is even possible), we would still have wildfires and blister rust. So, unless the USFWS can go back in time, we’re stuck with WBP being diminishing, and there is very little that can be done, especially with funding levels going lower…… lower……. lower. I don’t see any eco-groups giving up any of their donations to help the trees, too! *smirk*

  2. Well, it’s good to see some discussion in the FS realm on the topic of climate change. In a recent public meeting Terry Baker of the Willamette National Forest stated that climate change was not a consideration in the project planning process because it is unknown what impacts are related. Given the long term effects of climate change, it certainly seems that much should be considered in the planning process related to climate change.

  3. Of course, no one really knows what the future is for the WBB stands. But we do know how important the pinenuts are to these species. Why, oh why, would any DFR even think of cutting any of these remaining stands? In my experience on the Kootenai NF many years back, any cutting units in the higher elevations that lapped over into WBB stands allowed cutting, but the trees were almost always so scraggley and full of limbs that few if any sawlogs could be salvaged. Back then there was no knowledge of the value of these trees other than for a board or two. We know better now.
    Leave those trees alone!


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