A case to protect the whitebark pine has made its way to federal court.

As temperatures warm in the West, mountain pine beetles and a foreign fungus called "white pine blister rust" have run amok and devastated the hardy, high-elevation tree.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for its inaction on the group's December 2008 petition for an endangered species listing.

The agency missed a 90-day deadline to decide if the request warranted a formal review. By now, a year past the first deadline, a final listing decision would have also been due, NRDC attorney Rebecca Riley said.

Activists say time should not be lost. Certain regions have seen an 80 percent die-off of the trees in recent years, Riley said. Due to a combination of blister rust infestations, pine beetle outbreaks and fire suppression activities, death rates are rising. Nearly all of the remaining trees in some parts of the Northern Rockies are already infected or infested, according to the petition.

FWS spokeswoman Valerie Fellows could not estimate when the initial decision might be made. "We have provided funding to complete the 90-day finding for the whitebark pine petition and are currently working on this finding," she said.

The suit comes soon after environmentalists struck out in their bid for protections for the American pika, another mountain species threatened by climate change. Warming is constricting the pika's range and could push it to extinction, they argue, but FWS did not agree and denied the listing (Greenwire, Feb. 5).

The threats to the whitebark pine would exist with or without a warming planet. But it is clear to the advocates that climate change is now significantly raising the threat level.

In the past, harsh winters kept the mountain pine beetle from invading the whitebark's turf and limited the beetle's breeding cycle. But as alpine areas rapidly warm, beetles have moved to higher terrain. Blister rust infections, too, could increase as the rain cycle changes, said Riley. An endangered species listing would set the path for a recovery plan and protected habitat designation. "It forces them to strategize," said Riley.

NRDC says the trees' potential disappearance has wider implications. Grizzly bears, red squirrels, birds and small mammals all directly or indirectly depend on the tree as a food source. As a pioneer species of the dry, windy and cold slopes of the northern Rocky Mountains, whitebark pines are ecosystem engineers, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. They helpfully moderate stream flows and make the area habitable for less-hardy life.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500