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Originally published Friday, January 18, 2013 at 12:04 PM

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Conservation groups seek listing of whitebark pine

Two Montana-based environmental groups have filed a lawsuit seeking to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect a high-elevation pine tree whose nuts are an important food source for some threatened grizzly bears and other wildlife.

The Associated Press

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MISSOULA, Mont. —

Two Montana-based environmental groups have filed a lawsuit seeking to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect a high-elevation pine tree whose nuts are an important food source for some threatened grizzly bears and other wildlife.

In 2011, the federal agency determined whitebark pine warranted listing under the Endangered Species Act, but it said other species were considered to be higher priorities. That finding was made after a 2010 lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Missoula-based WildWest Institute filed a lawsuit in Missoula on Tuesday asking a federal judge to set aside the wildlife agency's decision or order it to set a date by which it would propose the trees for listing as a threatened or endangered species.

"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 the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Whitebark pine trees can live up to 1,000 years and thrive in conditions considered too harsh for most trees. Whitebark pine nuts are an important food for threatened grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. However, the trees have been devastated by the mountain pine beetle, a fungus known as blister rust, while warmer temperatures are allowing other trees to take root in traditional whitebark pine habitat in the West.

The lawsuit notes that efforts to protect the trees date back to the early 1990s and noted a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that cited whitebark declines as the only reason it could not delist grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

It alleges that while the USFWS committed to finishing reviews of 155 candidate species by 2016, the agency didn't include the whitebark pine, even though it had a higher priority status than many of the other candidate species. The lawsuit charges the agency with abusing its discretion by working on other species while claiming it didn't have enough money to evaluate whitebark pines.

"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," WildWest's Matthew Koehler said in a statement. "This isn't just about the whitebark pine, but about the future viability of these high-country ecosystems, including species that rely upon that habitat such as grizzly bears and Clark's nutcrackers."

Whitebark pine are found in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington and western Canada. Authorities in Canada determined the tree was endangered there in 2010.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not have a comment on the lawsuit when contacted by the Missoulian.

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