Science prevails in court: the loss of whitebark pine threatens Yellowstone's grizzlies

Yesterday an appeals court ruled that the US Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to adequately consider the threat posed to Yellowstone grizzly bears by the loss of whitebark pine – a high elevation tree that provides a key food source for the bears.  This is an issue that NRDC has been working on for years as a climate driven mountain pine beetle attack has devastated whitebark pine not only in the greater Yellowstone region, but throughout much of its range.  Over the past decade the beetle infestation, which previously was more limited to lower elevations by cold temperatures, has exploded – easily making its way through the defenseless whitebark pine forests.  In the most extensive aerial survey of whitebark pine conducted at a regional scale, NRDC and the US Forest Service documented the death of about 50% of whitebark pine in the Yellowstone area with another 45% in early stages of dying.  Only 5% of the trees were yet untouched.   And earlier this year, in response to a petition filed by NRDC, the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined that whitebark pine itself qualified as an endangered species. 

Whitebark pine provides a key food source for grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone region.  Their fatty seeds provide needed calories to the bears as they prepare for hibernation and soon after they emerge.  In addition, because the trees are located at high elevations, they draw the bears up and out of harm’s way.  Research has shown that because of these qualities, grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area have higher reproductive rates in years of good whitebark pine crops.  In years when the whitebark pine seeds are less available, bears have higher mortality rates.  In search of other food sources, they move to lower elevations where they are more likely to run into conflicts with humans.  

Bears have survived throughout time with natural variation in whitebark pine seed availability, but with the massive decline of whitebark pine every year is now a bad year for whitebark.  And indeed we have started to see increased conflicts and a slowing of the bear’s population growth in the past years.  All of these factors were recognized by the Service when they proposed delisting the bears in 2007 and yet they proceeded to remove protections without a plan in place to account for the severe changes in the landscape and the effect that would have on the bear population.  The Service has argued that the bears are omnivores and that the loss of whitebark pine would not affect them because they would readily find new food sources.  But the link between whitebark pine and the health of the grizzly population is so strong that two courts have now found the Service’s justification to be “lacking” and their conclusion to be “irrational.”

Yesterday’s court decision made clear that the Service cannot declare the grizzly population recovered in the face of this new and clear threat.  In the words of the judges, “(N)ow that this threat has emerged, the Service cannot take a full-speed ahead, damn-the-torpedoes approach to delisting.”  We couldn’t agree more.  Now is the time to rethink the strategies for addressing how bears will be using this newly transformed landscape to ensure that the recovery of the grizzly bear – one of America’s most iconic animals – continues on its successful path.

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Photo credit: USFWS