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Whitebark pine mulled for endangered species protection

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A researcher says the recent death toll of whitebark pines in the Yellowstone area is approaching and could far exceed the acreage of all trees that burned in the region’s infamous 1988 wildfires.

The Natural Resources Defense Council released a report today on the dead and dying high-elevation forests in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

Report author Wally Macfarlane says aerial photographs and maps document 1 million acres of whitebark forest dead or nearly so from mountain pine beetles and an invasive fungus. Another 1 million acres are considered at risk.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to decide next year on the group’s petition to list the pine as endangered. The group says climate change is primarily responsible by causing the beetle outbreak.

The trees have proven unusually vulnerable as mountain pine beetles have killed millions of acres of forest across the West in recent years. A fungus introduced from Europe also has been taking a toll on whitebark forests for a century.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday that the petition filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council warrants further investigation.

“We just evaluated the information in the petition. The threat factors that we felt were substantial, we identified,” said Ann Belleman, a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Cody who will be among those studying the tree further.

Whitebark pine trees can live up to 1,000 years. They grow at elevations up to 12,000 feet in conditions too harsh for most trees.

Whitebark pine nuts are an important, high-calorie food source for grizzly bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Grizzlies raid squirrel caches of whitebark pine cones and devour the seeds within the cones to fatten up for winter.

Whitebark forests also anchor down mountain snowpack, preventing the snow from blowing away or melting before spring runoff provides critical water for cities and agriculture.

“It’s not just any tree. It’s a very unique tree to the function of the high mountain ecosystem where it lives,” said Louisa Willcox, wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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