By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An iconic species of the American West, the whitebark pine, is at risk of extinction from climate change and disease, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said on Tuesday, but no immediate action is planned.
There isn't enough money to list the whitebark pine as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, with other species taking priority. Such a listing would trigger a recovery plan, the wildlife service said in a document published in the Federal Register.
Government wildlife specialists will review the tree's status in 12 months to determine the level of biological risk and to determine if there are enough resources to begin crafting a plan for it to recover.
"We believe (the whitebark pine) is in danger of extinction, or likely to become so in the foreseeable future, throughout all or a significant portion of its range," the service reported.
The tall tree's range includes mountainous areas of California, Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Washington state in the United States, and British Columbia and Alberta in Canada.
One key threat is the mountain pine beetle, which needs to kill whitebark pine trees to reproduce. The beetle has long been in the American West, but its ability to reproduce and survive winters has improved as temperatures have risen over recent decades.
HABITAT COULD BE NEARLY GONE BY 2100
Other factors include an invasive disease called blister rust, the wildlife service said.
"Climate change is expected to significantly decrease the probability of rangewide persistence" of the tree, the wildlife service said, with a possible 70 percent decline in distribution across its range starting in 2030.
By 2100, less than 3 percent of the species' suitable habitat is expected to remain, the wildlife service said.
Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that petitioned to protect the whitebark pine, said the government's decision makes this "the first broadly dispersed tree that the federal government has clearly pegged as a climate casualty."
Whitebark pine is considered a foundation species, which means it is one of the first to pioneer areas and create conditions needed for other plants and animals to get established in the harsh alpine ecosystem. The trees' branches block wind, prolong snowmelt, regulate spring runoff and reduce the potential for flooding and erosion.
"This designation (by the wildlife service) will help bring attention to saving these tough trees and the long list of species,' like Yellowstone's grizzly bears, that are reliant on them to live in this harsh environment," NRDC's Louisa Wilcox said in a statement.
The wildlife service said that immediately listing the whitebark pine as endangered or threatened is "precluded by higher priority listing actions."
An emergency regulation that would give the tree temporary protection is not warranted now "because the threats acting on the species are not impacting the entire species across its range to the pint where the species will be immediately lost."
The service said this kind of temporary listing could be an option in the future.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)