Feds Consider Listing Tree as Endangered
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RENO, NV (KUNR) - Unless you climb to the tops of mountains in the west, chances are you've never seen a whitebark pine.
The tree only grows at high altitude, but it plays a vital role in the ecosystems up there, according to scientist Sylvia Fallon with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Fallon: "It creates the conditions that allow other species to exist. "
The whitebark pine does that by stabilizing soil, blocking wind, and serving as a source of food for all kinds of high-altitude critters.
The trees started dying off from a parasitic fungus called blister rust- an invasive species that came over from Europe more than a century ago.
But now, they're being attacked by another parasite: Bark beetles. Tiny flea-sized insects, which cut off the flow of nutrients through the tree trunks, leaving them dead.
Beetles were never a problem for the whitebark pine before. Way up high where the trees live, it was too cold for the beetles to survive.
Fallon says not anymore.
Fallon: "But now that temperatures are warming, the beetles are able to survive winters. They're also reproducing more rapidly and they're expanding their range up in elevation."
Expanding all the way up to the whitebark pine.
Other types of healthy pines can fend off bark beetles by pitching the insects out out with sap. The whitebark pine does not have this ability, scientists theorize, because it's never had to deal with beetles before.
Humans waging a war on beetles at high altitude may not be a very realistic expectation.
But getting the whitebark pine listed as endangered or threatened by the government would at least force some study of a plan.
The US Fish and Wildlife service will decide whether the tree gets that protection a year from now.
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