Whitebark pines are an essential part of the food chain in Yellowstone National Park. Their nuts provide essential nutrition to grizzly bears emerging from hibernation each spring, while birds and animals rely on the trees for shelter and sustenance. From a January report on the status of the high-altitude whitebark pine from the Endangered Species Coalition:
Whitebark pine is the ecosystem’s foundation tree, living in the highest and harshest parts of the region, where few other trees survive. Moreover, whitebark forests stabilize and shade the snowpack, reducing avalanches and extending precious snowmelt flows into the summer months. The slow melt keeps rivers cool for trout and other wildlife and helps maintain water resources for people in the arid American West. But warming temperatures are threatening these majestic pines by allowing the mountain pine beetle to move into higher elevations, where it is decimating the defenseless whitebark forests on an unprecedented scale.
Their existence is being threatened by the mountain pine beetle. Normally, mountain pine beetles would make their way to the higher altitudes of Yellowstone, where the whitebarks are prevalent, and fail to do too much damage because winter temps would kill the beetles. Now that temperatures are warmer in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the beetles can survive winter kill and inflict much more damage on the whitebark pines, essentially killing them and spreading blight.
Fish and Wildlife Service researchers confirm the ongoing damage and acknowledge the need to do something. However, they declined to deem the trees as being threatened or endangered — thus eligible for protections — because whitebarks are a low priority.
Of course, this won’t be close to the end of the issue. Conservation groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council sued to have the FWS consider the issue at all, and it’s doubtful they won’t be back in court arguing that if the FWS does indeed consider the trees endangered, some sort of action must follow.