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Yellowstone Grizzly Bears Safer For Now

Yellowstone grizzly bears warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. So says the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which recently upheld a lower-court ruling that rejected a federal government effort to strip the bears of their protections.

When the government “delisted” the bears in 2007, which stripped them of protections under the Endangered Species Act, Earthjustice attorneys went to court to get the protections reinstated. The federal government failed to explain how grizzlies are supposed to make a living now that one of their key foods, whitebark pine seeds, are disappearing. The seeds are disappearing because the trees that produce them are being killed by beetles which are ravaging the high alpine habitat where the trees grow. The beetles are surviving what used to be harsh winters due to global warming.

One of the untold stories behind the successful effort to reinstate protections for the bears is the efforts of Earthjustice Attorney Doug Honnold and NRDC’s Louisa Willcox that largely put the whitebark pine issue on the map. Few in officialdom, or elsewhere, were talking about the decline of whitebark pines before these two went to work on it. Most people had never heard of these trees nor of their value as a food source to grizzly bears.

Mountain pine beetles have decimated one of the main food sources for grizzly bears. (USDA)

Honnold and Willcox sought out U.S. Forest Service entomologist Dr. Jesse Logan who documented the disastrous spread of mountain pine beetle through whitebark pine forests in the Northern Rockies. Willcox and NRDC then helped to secure funding for an aerial overflight survey of the Yellowstone ecosystem to definitively document the demise of whitebark pine across the ecosystem.

Honnold made sure that Dr. Logan’s cutting-edge work documenting the rapid demise of whitebark pine and modeling the connection between global warming, bark beetles, and the rapid decline in whitebark pine was put squarely in the court record, time and again. This record turned out to be a key to winning the court case.

By the federal government’s last report, there are an estimated 540–660 grizzly bears living in Yellowstone National Park and the national forests that surround it. About 40 percent of the area in this ecosystem now inhabited by the great bears is unprotected from logging, roading, and oil and gas development. Human development is hemming the bears in and they’re having a harder time making a living. Historically, in years when whitebark pine failed to produce large crops of seed-bearing cones, Yellowstone grizzly bears produced fewer cub litters and fewer cubs per litter. Now, with the thousands and thousands of acres of dead whitebark pine trees, every year will be a bad cone year for bears. It’s clear grizzly bears will need help over the long term to survive. The court’s recent ruling keeping ESA protections in place is the right solution at this time.

Aerial view of the devastation caused by the mountain pine beetle. (USDA)

About 40 percent of the area in this ecosystem now inhabited by the great bears is unprotected from logging, roading, and oil and gas development. Human development is hemming the bears in and they’re having a harder time making a living. (NPS)

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