MISSOULA — A pair of Montana environmental groups have accused the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of stalling efforts to give federal protection to whitebark pine trees, which are disappearing from the northern Rocky Mountains.
“Whitebark pine isn’t on their radar, as far as the commitment it’s going to take to maintain or recover it,” said Steve Kelly, a board member of Alliance for the Wild Rockies. That group joined with WildWest Institute to sue FWS Director Daniel Ashe and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in Missoula District Court on Tuesday.
The lawsuit complaint notes that the Great Bear Foundation first sought federal Endangered Species Act protection for whitebark pine in 1991. The request was denied in 1994. The Natural Resources Defense Council made another application for protection in 2008. That set off a back-and-forth debate that wound up with FWS declaring whitebark “warranted but precluded” from protection in 2011.
The group’s legal brief also states that while FWS committed to finishing reviews of 155 candidate species by 2016, the agency didn’t include whitebark, even though it had a higher priority status than many of the other species. The brief accuses the agency of abusing its discretion by working on other species while claiming it didn’t have enough money to add whitebark. It also cited a 9th U.S. Circuit Court ruling that declared whitebark declines as the only reason it could not delist grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“People who spend time in the high country realize that whitebark pine are dying at alarming rates due to impacts associated with climate change,” WildWest’s Matthew Koehler stated in an email. “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.”
Whitebark pine trees grow at high elevations and are generally considered unprofitable for logging. Mature trees produce protein-rich seeds that grizzly bears and other animals feed on.
Over the past century, a fungus known as blister rust killed a huge percentage of the trees. In the past decade, mountain pine beetles have started attacking the remaining stands. Changing snow and temperature patterns also have reduced its viability. It’s now estimated to occupy about 3 percent of its former habitat.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies had previously sued the U.S. Forest Service over logging whitebark stands without considering the ecological consequences in the Helena National Forest. Kelly said the group wanted federal agencies to put more effort into helping whitebark survive, instead of letting it disappear by neglect or mismanagement.
FWS officials did not have a response to the lawsuit on Wednesday.