By Eric Sprague, Vice President of Forest Restoration
The North Cascades Ecosystem in Washington State is one of the most intact ecosystems in the Lower 48. Gray wolf, Canada lynx, elk and golden eagle all still roam the landscape. Although, arguably the most iconic western animal, the grizzly bear, has not been confirmed in the region since 1996.
Grizzlies are found both to the east in Idaho and Montana and the north in Canada, but have not established in the North Cascades despite favorable habitats. To prevent grizzlies from going extinct in the region, federal agencies are currently accepting comments through April 28, 2017 on a number of alternatives that include reintroducing the grizzly to the North Cascades Ecosystem.
If grizzly bears do return, they will find that one of their favorite fall food sources is in limited supply. When whitebark pine cones are abundant in these high-elevation forests, grizzly bears can feed almost exclusively on the seeds, making them important to survival for winter hibernation and keeping the bears in wildland forests instead of human communities.
Despite the region’s remoteness, whitebark pine trees are sustaining heavy losses from white pine blister rust, successive waves of mountain pine beetle and the impact of fire suppression. All of these threats are further fueled by climate change, stressing a hardy tree to its limits. In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated whitebark pine as a candidate species under the U.S Endangered Species Act (ESA). The agency is currently reevaluating the tree’s status. Whitebark pine was listed in 2012 as “endangered” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. If listed in the U.S., whitebark pine would be the most-widely distributed tree under ESA protection.
Whitebark pine tree with the “red flagging,” a symptom of blister rust infection.
The latest research shows that whitebark pine may be able to respond to fire and drought and adapt to climate change. The catch is that the ecosystem’s ability to adapt in the future is dependent on restoration actions we take now. Through our Wildlands for Wildlife initiative, American Forests is restoring whitebark pine forests to benefit the grizzly bear and protect the many other services these ecosystems provide, including storing water and helping forests bounce back from wildfires.
In 2017, we will continue to support projects in the North Cascades and the development and planting of blister rust resistant seedlings over 300 acres in priority locations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Crown of the Continent region in Montana and Canada.
Furthermore, American Forests is partnering with the U.S. Forest Service and Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation to develop a national restoration plan to guide whitebark pine restoration activities and investments over the next several years.
Endangered species recovery and habitat conservation go hand-in-hand. American Forests is committed to conserving the grizzly bear and the whitebark pine ecosystem that it depends on.