A troubling picture of climate change impacts ravaging western North America is emerging at high elevations where an important species is rapidly disappearing. This week a groundbreaking report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and a key Endangered Species List decision both pointed to growing danger that the whitebark pine tree could become functionally extinct before the end of this decade, severely impacting many American and Canadian forests and potentially downstream fisheries and communities. The new report shows that over 80% of the whitebark pine forests of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana are already dead or dying.
"The red and grey trees littering the western landscape are a testament to the fact that North America's forests are under assault," said Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for NRDC and one of the minds behind a new report on whitebark pine mortality in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. "Climate change is hitting the whitebark pine hard by allowing mountain pine beetles access to previously inhospitable forests at higher elevations. Whitebark, which grows from roughly 8500 feet up to treeline, has never had to fight off a threat like this, and if we don't act quickly, we could lose this essential tree species."
Whitebark pines can be found from Nevada to British Columbia (including the high Sierras of California, the ranges throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Cascades and Olympic Mountains of Washington state, and beyond). Scientists regard the tree as a "foundation species" because of its importance in creating the conditions necessary for other trees, plants and animals to become established in the harsh alpine ecosystem. Whitebark pine is also considered a keystone species, because its health is a measure of the intergrity of the whole high-elevation ecosystem.