How is a grizzly bear like a whitebark pine? They're both endangered

In a New York Times' blog yesterday, Leslie Kaufman asks the question, ‘How is a Grizzly bear like a wolf?,’ as  she compares the fight over delisting the grizzly bear to the battle over the wolf.  The Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear coordinator, who is quoted in the piece, characterizes the similarity as a political disaster caused by the environmental community for opposing the removal of protections from what the Service considers to be a recovered population.  Missing from the piece is any real discussion of the threats facing Yellowstone grizzlies and one of their major food sources, the whitebark pine. 

The Service first proposed delisting grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone area in 2007 when whitebark pine was just beginning to decline from climate-driven beetle attacks.  The environmental community, including NRDC, filed a lawsuit challenging the delisting based on the argument that the unanticipated decline of whitebark pine and the inadequacy of state regulatory mechanisms continued to threaten the bears.  In 2009, a federal district judge agreed.  However, rather than addressing these inadequacies in its delisting plan, the Service appealed the ruling.  A decision on that appeal is currently pending. 

In the meantime, whitebark pine has continued its precipitous dive.  In 2010, NRDC and the US Forest Service published a report of the first ever extensive aerial survey, which documented that over 50% of the whitebark pine forest in the greater Yellowstone area had died and another 45% was in earlier stages of dying. Only 5% of the forest was untouched by the climate-driven death. This year, in response to a petition filed by NRDC, the Service concluded that whitebark pine itself is an endangered species

Whitebark pine is more than just a major food source for grizzly bears.  Because of the high fat content of the whitebark pine seeds, grizzly bear consumption of whitebark pine is tied directly to their reproductive success, with bears experiencing higher birth rates in years of large whitebark pine crops and lower rates when whitebark pine is unavailable.  Additionally, because whitebark pine is found at high elevations, it drives bears up and away from human induced conflicts.  As whitebark pine has crashed, bears have not only been forced to find nutritionally comparative food sources, but they have also been driven to lower elevations where they are more likely to encounter people.  In fact, the last two years have seen record numbers of grizzly conflicts in the area and this year the Service recorded a dip in grizzly population numbers.

Simply put, the conditions that existed for grizzlies in 2007 when the Service proposed to delist them are no longer a reality.  Even the Service has acknowledged that whitebark pine, which is tied directly to Yellowstone grizzlies’ survival rates, is already functionally gone from the ecosystem.  However, the Service refuses to acknowledge the threat that the loss of whitebark pine poses to the grizzly, arguing that the bears will adapt to new food sources.  Bears certainly will find new foods to eat, but in doing so they will use the landscape in new ways that are not accounted for in the current management plans.  The changed circumstances call for a changed approach that ensures that grizzlies will continue to thrive under these new conditions.

The Endangered Species Act has been incredibly successful at protecting the grizzly bear – one of America’s most iconic species – and allowing it to recover.  To risk all of that progress by failing to address the clear and emerging threat posed by the loss of whitebark pine would be the true disaster in this fight over the bear.

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Photo credit: USFWS

About the Authors

Sylvia Fallon

Director, Wildlife Conservation project

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