By Elsa Partan
Laramie, Wy – Conservation groups say disease and pine beetles have brought the whitebark pine tree to the brink of extinction. Now, the Natural Resources Defense Council is asking the federal government to give the trees endangered species protections. The group's Louisa Wilcox says the tree's high-fat pine nuts are a critical food source for grizzly bears, squirrels and birds. The tree's decline is devastating to those animals.
"What we're talking about is not absolute extinction, but functional extinction, from the perspective of the grizzly bear or the Clark's nutcracker, that this tree no longer serves the same ecological function."
Wilcox says foresters could plant disease-resistant seeds to replace the dead pines. Terry Root of the Shoshone National Forest says it would be impossible to re-plant whitebark pines in the wilderness where most of the trees live. He says letting wild fires burn will spur the natural recovery process.