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Originally published Monday, July 18, 2011 at 2:26 PM

Whitebark pines ailing, but don't get protections

A high-elevation pine tree devastated by disease, beetles, and climate change warrants greater protection under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday. But the agency said it will not immediately list the whitebark pine as threatened or endangered because of higher priorities and a lack of funding.

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BILLINGS, Mont. —

A high-elevation pine tree devastated by disease, beetles, and climate change warrants greater protection under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday. But the agency said it will not immediately list the whitebark pine as threatened or endangered because of higher priorities and a lack of funding.

Environmentalists had sued the government earlier this year in a bid to force it to confront the tree's decline.

Whitebark pine nuts are an important food for threatened grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. The pines can live up to 1,000 years and thrive in conditions considered too harsh for most trees.

Yet in recent years, stands across the West have been devastated by the mountain pine beetle, a fungus known as blister rust and warmer temperatures. Those direct threats have been exacerbated by policies to suppress wildfires that can kill off small trees, giving mature whitebark more room to grow.

"Those threats are already on the ground. They're already having effects," said Amy Nicholas, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "Current mortality rates are not holding steady; they're increasing."

Trees on an estimated 2 million acres across the West were killed by the beetles two years ago, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. In some areas, 80 to 95 percent of trees with the beetles were killed as a changing climate has allowed beetle populations to take hold in new areas, the agency said.

Blister rust, introduced to North America in 1910, is now found in every major stand of whitebark pine in the country except in the Great Basin area of Nevada - an area that accounts for less than 1 percent of the tree's total distribution.

"There is currently no refuge from these threats," the Fish and Wildlife Service said of beetles and blister rust in its Monday decision.

Louisa Wilcox with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that prompted Monday's decision, said she the finding should spur government agencies to take new steps to restore whitebark pine stands before they are wiped out.

"This is a red flag that whitebark is in trouble," Wilcox said.

Whitebark pine are found in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington and western Canada.

Authorities in Canada determined the tree was endangered there last year.

Efforts to protect remaining stands of whitebark pine already are under way. The U.S. Forest Service has tried treating trees in some areas with a pheromone that drives away hungry pine beetles. Also holding promise is the development of seedlings resistant to blister rust.

Yet halting the trend of decline among the overall population will be difficult given the scale of the die-off, Nicholas said.

"You could save some trees, you could protect some pretty localized areas with that pheromone as far as the beetles go, but you're not going to be able to do it on a major, landscape scale," she said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will review its whitebark pine decision every year to gauge the various perils facing the trees, Nicholas said.

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