The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in finding that grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem should remain a threatened species, has ruled that federal wildlife biologists were wrong when they concluded the decline of whitebark pine trees was not detrimental to the bears' future.
The ruling was hailed by conservation groups, who have argued that the bears continue to fight for their survival.
“Grizzly bears have made great progress in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but they are still very vulnerable, and we must maintain the protections that have brought the bears back from the brink of extinction," said Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for Natural Resources Defense Council. "Since one of their key food sources is disappearing in Yellowstone, we must develop a long-term plan to help the bear adapt to the results of climate change on their habitat.”
The ruling, handed down Tuesday, held that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "failed to articulate a rational connection between the data in the record and its determination that whitebark pine declines were not a threat to the Yellowstone grizzly, given the lack of data indicating grizzly population stability in the face of such declines, and the substantial data indicating a direct correlation between whitebark pine seed availability and grizzly survival and reproduction."
The decision was in response to a challenge to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s effort to remove endangered species protections from the Northern Rockies grizzly population in 2007. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition brought the challenge, with a similar lawsuit also filed by NRDC in another court.
Some grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem rely on the whitebark pine's calorie-rich nuts to pack on the pounds before hibernating. But in recent years the increase in mountain pine beetles and their ability to go higher in elevation to where the whitebark pines grow has greatly impacted the trees. According to studies by the NRDC and the U.S. Forest Service, more than 80 percent of the whitebark pine forests in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem "are now dead or dying due to a mountain pine beetle infestation brought on by warming temperatures."
Key in the ruling was the court's finding that the Fish and Wildlife Service based its 2007 delisting decision in part on old data.
"... the study on which the Service relied to demonstrate long-term grizzly population growth included data only until 2002, before the 'epidemic of mountain pine beetles' began to kill the region's whitebark pines," wrote Judge Richard Tallman. "It is not rational for the Service to rely on grizzly population trend data from a time of natural pine seed variability in order to predict the effect on the grizzly population of an overall whitebark pine tree decline."
The court also faulted the Service for basing its finding in part on data pertaining to grizzly bear numbers and whitebark pine production in the ecosystem around Glacier National Park. Those studies showed that the bears continued to thrive even as there was a decline in pine nut production.
However, the court noted, "the force of this comparison is undercut by the fact that, in the very same Rule, the Service designates the Yellowstone grizzly as 'a distinct population population segment' of North American grizzly, based in part on its unique dependence on whitebark pine rather than, for example, berry-producing shrubs, which are relatively uncommon in the GYA compared to other regions."
"Indeed," the opinion continued, "the record before us includes a 2007 fact sheet authored by (grizzly bear) Recovery Coordinator (Chris) Servheen noting that the difference in the range of foods eaten by the bears in these two regions 'makes direct comparisons of the impacts of the loss of [whitebark pine] uncertain.'
"... we think it irrational for the Service to determine on the one hand that the Yellowstone grizzly population is sufficiently distinct to warrant independent delisting consideration, and then on the other base its delisting determination on observations pertaining entirely to a different population. We therefore conclude that this comparison is insufficient to support the Service's determination that whitebark pine declines do not threaten the Yellowstone grizzly.
According to Ms. Willcox, the number of grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem has declined this year, "but the dip may be steeper as the loss of whitebark pine and increasing conflicts take their toll."
NRDC officails want climatologists and whitebark pine experts to become more involved in studying how the decline of whitebark pines are affecting recovery of grizzlies in the ecosystem. Related to that research should be increased efforts to reduce human-bear conflicts, the group said.
"Numerous studies have shown a clear correlation between the abundance of whitebark pine cone crops and human-bear conflicts. In years with large cone crops, the bears forage at higher elevation, far from high densities of people. When cones are scarce, the bears move closer to places where more people are," the group said.