A federal appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling that reinstated Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone’s iconic grizzly bear population. The court agreed with Greater Yellowstone Coalition, represented by Earthjustice, that the government’s irrational response to the loss of a key food source due to climate change requires continued federal ESA protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies.
Yellowstone grizzlies rely on the high-fat seeds of whitebark pine as a key food source in the critical months before hibernation. Warming temperatures 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 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 9th Circuit court flatly rejected that argument, noting that bears seeking alternative foods would likely range further afield, run into more conflicts with people, and suffer more mortalities. As the 9th Circuit concluded: “[t]hat the bears are likely to seek alternate foods in the face of whitebark pine decline is a part of the problem, not an answer to it.”
"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 Mike Clark, GYC's executive director. "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 9th Circuit summarized the Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to face the ravages of global warming this way: “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.’”
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.