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Whitebark Pine Tree Gets Endangered Species Act Protection

A gray-and-black bird perched on the end of a pine branch with a pine seed in its bill.
Clark’s Nutcracker by Jeremiah Trimble/Macaulay Library.

From the Spring 2023 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a final action to list the whitebark pine tree as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“The official listing of whitebark pine has been 14 years in the making,” says Diana Tomback, a lead scientist on the National Whitebark Pine Restoration Plan. “Those of us who worked for decades on whitebark pine in the northern Rocky Mountains … were well aware that the tree was in trouble 25 to 30 years ago.

An adult nutcracker, a mostly gray bird with black wings, feeding a young nutcracker while both are perched on a branch of a pine tree.
Clark’s Nutcracker by Eric VanderWerf/Macaulay LIbrary.

“The listing of whitebark pine provides authority, coordination, additional funding sources, and soon, a roadmap for restoration,” says Tomback, who is a professor of integrative biology at the University of Colorado Denver, and also the policy and outreach coordinator for the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.

According to USFWS listing documents, the range of the whitebark pine in the U.S. covers about 56 million acres in the Intermountain West, and scientists estimate that more than half of all standing whitebark pine trees are dead. The USFWS listing states that white pine blister rust disease is the primary threat to the tree. Tomback says the key to recovering the whitebark pine will be a bird—the Clark’s Nutcracker, which is the primary seed disperser for the tree (see Can The Clark’s Nutcracker Help Its BFF, The Whitebark Pine, Recover From Disaster? Living Bird, Autumn 2022).

“One essential whitebark pine restoration strategy is building genetic resistance to the exotic disease white pine blister rust in local populations by planting seedlings from resistant parent trees,” Tomback says. She adds that a federal recovery plan will likely focus on restoring core areas within the whitebark pine range first. “We will depend on nutcrackers to disseminate seeds from resistant trees within and outside core areas, building resilience in populations, and eventually restoring whitebark pine across its range.”

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library

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