The preliminary finding came after the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit against the government over an earlier inaction to consider the whitebark pine for protection.
The whitebark pine’s importance in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem stems from its role as a food source at the highest elevations of the region: it provides crucial food for grizzlies emerging from winter sleeps, it provides food and shelter for birds and mammals at high altitudes, and it gives shelter for smaller plants. Because whitebark pine can thrive at high altitudes, it goes into mountainous areas where other plants cannot put down roots, stabilizing the soil and regulating water runoff.
But whitebark pine is threatened by a number of factors, most notably mountain pine beetles, who are thriving these days and causing much damage to whitebark pine. Why are beetles thriving? Because of global warming; milder winters means beetles can live through a Yellowstone cold spell and allows them to move to higher elevations; the whitebark pine has no defense mechanisms against the mountain pine beetle. The lack of a winter kill gives the beetles a head start for the coming year.
The next step: a review process and a call for public input before a final decision is handed down. If the whitebark pine is declared an endangered species, it will be a first (no tree has been declared to be endangered) and a huge challenge. If nothing else, it will spur the government to map out a protection plan and give more ammunition to folks arguing that global warming is very real, with measurable consequences.