U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must consider decline of key food source in long-term recovery plan
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone region will remain protected under the Endangered Species Act a while longer — at least until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studies how global warming impacts and the decimation of a key food source figure into a long-term recovery plan for the iconic mammals.
In an elegantly written decision, a federal appeals court this week upheld a lower-court ruling that rejected the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service‘s 2007 decision to de-list the bears. That decision was challenged in court by conservation groups represented by Earthjustice.
In the court case, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued that Yellowstone grizzlies could survive the ongoing loss of whitebark pine seeds because they are “opportunistic omnivores.”
The appeals court said the agency can’t simply ignore the threats resulting from the decline of whitebark pines, which provided a rich source of protein for the bears.
“Perhaps the Service’s delisting process, based on two decades of grizzly population growth, was well underway before the whitebark pine loss problem appeared on the radar and could be studied. But now that this threat has emerged, the Service cannot take a full-speed ahead, damn-the-torpedoes approach to delisting—especially given the ESA’s ‘policy of institutionalized caution,” the judges wrote in their decision.
Yellowstone grizzlies rely on the high-fat seeds of whitebark pine as a key food source in the critical months before hibernation. Warming temperatures and other factors have enabled mountain pine beetles to kill historically safe high-altitude whitebark pine trees at alarming rates.
In the Yellowstone ecosystem, the availability of whitebark pine seeds has a dramatic impact on the number of cubs by increasing the number of litters and the number of cubs per litter following good seed years. Because they grow in high, remote places, whitebark pine forests keep grizzly bears out of harm’s way. In poor seed years, grizzlies seek foods elsewhere, encountering people more and dying at rates two times higher than in good seed years.
In the past four years, there have been more encounters between grizzlies and humans and more dead bears than at any other time in recent memory, said Doug Honnold, of Earthjustice. Bears are unpredictable, and four years may not represent a long-term pattern, but it’s clear that the loss of a primary food source will reduce the carrying capacity of the core habitat, forcing the bears to disperse, Honnold said.
“We appreciate the strong language of the 9th Circuit Court saying that US Fish and Wildlife Service must further study the demise of the whitebark pine and its impact upon grizzlies before it can delist the Yellowstone griz,” said Greater Yellowstone Coalition director Mike Clark. “This favorable ruling on behalf of Greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies is a direct result of Earthjustice’s continued exceptional work in protecting this special ecosystem.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service indicated it will study the issue closely before drafting a new recovery plan.
“Our next step will be to better explain the relationship between white bark pine and grizzly bear population recovery and health in the Yellowstone area,” said Steve Guertin, director of the agency’s Mountain-Prairie Region.
I would hope the Fish and Wildlife Service will confront the issue of changes to whitebark pines in grizzly habitat … before they re-imagine a recovery plan,” Honnold said.
Grizzly bears in the lower-48 states were reduced to one percent of their historic range and one to two percent of their historic numbers due to persecution, poisoning, predator control efforts, livestock grazing, sport hunting, and habitat destruction associated with the march of human development. More than 270 scientists urged the Fish and Wildlife Service not to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear population.
While the Fish and Wildlife Service counted grizzlies throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem (which includes national forests lands surrounding the park) in assessing recovery, more than 40 percent of currently occupied Yellowstone grizzly bear habitat remains unprotected. Much of this unprotected habitat, encompassing nearly 2 million acres, is open to motorized access, logging, and oil and gas development.
“We know how to protect grizzly bears. It’s question of how much of a commitment we want to make,” Honnold said, framing the issue in a political and social context.
Filed under: biodiversity, endangered species, Environment, Summit County news Tagged: | biodiversity, Earthjustice, endangered species, endangered species act, Greater Yellowstone Coaltion, grizzly bears, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Yellowstone