Grizzly Managers Spin Whitebark Pine Woes

From the good folks at NRDC.

August 25, 2010

By Louisa Willcox

Whether or not you care about the recovery of grizzly bears, we face a serious challenge today of how to protect the safety of people who live and recreate in grizzly country, as whitebark pine, the driver of the health of the population for Yellowstone grizzly bear population, continues to suffer from a climate-driven beetle epidemic. At this critical juncture, it has been confusing and unconstructive to see grizzly bear management agencies flip-flop on the fundamental question of whether or not whitebark pine matters to the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, and the effects of its loss on human-bear conflicts.

In its August 9 legal brief challenging the 2009 ruling by Federal Judge Donald Molloy that required relisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), federal attorneys said, “the grizzly does not depend on whitebark pine for its survival. The grizzly is a very successful omnivore, and that…they will somehow be able to adapt to a decline in whitebark pines.” The legal briefs then go on to dismiss the issue of whitebark pine relationships to grizzly bear vital rates, including mortality risks, as well as the reproductive success of females.

This argument, as the district court ruled, and I will discuss later, runs counter to the evidence on the record.

Then, just yesterday, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) sent out a press release saying, “the scarcity of whitebark pine cones this year may be driving bears to find food at lower elevations, where there is more human activity, increasing the chances of bear-human interactions.” (This comes in a year when 22 grizzly bears are known to have died, and many human-bear conflicts have occurred–months before bears will den up.)

Huh? So which is it? Does whitebark pine have an impact on rates of human-bear conflicts and bear vital rates, or not?

And why does this matter to people, or to bears?

First, let’s look at the science–science that has been developed almost entirely by the federal government, the entity now disputing its own findings in its legal briefs. The importance of whitebark pine seeds to Yellowstone grizzly bears is thoroughly understood, including the effects of this food on human-caused mortality rates and female reproductive success. There are almost two dozen publications on the tight-knit relationships between whitebark pine, squirrels that facilitate grizzly foraging by caching seeds, Clark’s nutcrackers that help seed the forests, rates of grizzly bear mortality and reproductive success by females, and related topics.

This body of work was cited and used by the federal government in its delisting ruling, turned upside down and twisted to justify delisting the Yellowstone grizzly bear. For example, the major scientific citation that the federal government used to justify its position that whitebark pine does not matter to the health of the Yellowstone grizzly population, a 1996 paper by Dr. John Weaver and other experts, actually makes the opposite point, saying that in year is poor whitebark pine seed production, “bears respond by substituting lower-quality foods” and experience “substantially increase[d]….risk of direct human-caused mortality” due to their movement into more populated areas.

In his PhD thesis on whitebark pine and Yellowstone grizzly relationships, Dr. David Mattson of the US Geological Survey found fact that whitebark pine is more important to the female grizzlies in the Yellowstone population: females consume roughly twice as many whitebark pine seeds as males do, and are likely to reproduce–and produce larger litters–following good pine seed crops. According to several peer-reviewed scientific publications, including a 2006 monograph by the IGBST, whitebark pine reduces human-caused mortality by attracting grizzly bears to remote, high-elevation areas during years when whitebark pine seed crops are robust, away from people and thus out of harm’s way.

Another published paper by grizzly experts in the prestigious journal Ecological Applications showed that when whitebark pine seed crops are poor, Yellowstone grizzly bears die at about three times the rate as when pine seed crops are good, which results in an average of 7 percent rate of population increase following good seed crops, versus an average 5 percent rate of decrease when seed crops are poor.

In his September 29, 2009 ruling to relist the grizzly bear, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy stated, “the agency has not articulated a rational connection between the best available science and its conclusion that bears will not be affected by declines in whitebark pine because they are omnivorous. While the final [delisting] rule emphasized that grizzly bears will adapt to the decline of whitebark pines, the record contains scant evidence for this proposition…the science relied on by the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service does not support its conclusion that declines in availability of whitebark pine will not negatively affect grizzly bears.”

In essence, the federal government lost its case to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear population because its own facts and scientific evidence did not support its conclusions. The agency was unable to show that whitebark pine doesn’t matter to Yellowstone grizzlies, and that the tree was not threatened.

So why would the agencies continue to spin the science, after this convincing ruling? The most obvious and defensible answer to this question is this: a history of twenty years of continual public pressure by the states and special interests to remove federal authority for managing grizzly bears under the ESA. Simply put, it comes down to politics and power–who has the keys to the car of bear management.

The push to delist Yellowstone grizzlies has become, perhaps unwittingly and unintentionally by some involved in the issue, a hardwired, culturally and bureaucratically reinforced agenda, with roots so deep and so old that its proponents may not be fully conscious of it. It now appears that the truth regarding massive climate-driven whitebark pine loss by beetles and the impacts is too inconvenient to bear (no pun intended), because it raises questions about the basic wisdom of the delisting decision and calls for more efforts to keep people and bears safe.

To provide some historic context, since 1992 there has been a steady drumroll of press statements, resolutions pressing for delisting by the governors of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, and letters from Congressmen to several Secretaries of Interior. For example, on October 11, 2005, Wyoming Senator Enzi said in a letter to the Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, “I am disappointed that this [delisting] effort has not moved forward. Today, I seek written assurance from you that the process will move forward this fall and that a final decision to delist the grizzly bear will occur in early 2006.”

At the time of delisting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claimed that only 16 percent of the whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem had been affected by mountain pine beetles. In a report completed last year by NRDC, Geo Graphics and the Forest Service, we learned that over 50 percent of whitebark pine has been killed in the ecosystem, and 82 percent of the whitebark pine by sub-watershed has been hard hit by beetles.

Yesterday’s IGBST press release made it look like this was an unusual year, with a poor whitebark pine crop. But the hard cold fact is that now every year is a bad year for whitebark pine.

This is the brave new world of grizzly bear management. Bad whitebark pine years will no longer be followed by good ones, as has been the case in the past. The cupboard of whitebark pine has been unalterably and significantly emptied for the foreseeable future. And grizzly bears, especially mothers with cubs, who depend on mom for the first two to three years of their lives, will no longer have the old tried and true protected refuges in the backcountry full of 100 Big Macs worth on calories in a single sitting in a whitebark pine squirrel midden. They will be struggling to make ends meet, and may wind up in places where they bump into people and die at higher rates.

Agency scientists have long predicted what the consequences of a significant loss of whitebark pine would look like–and those consequences are playing out today. In a 2006 Wildlife Monograph, for example, IGBST director Chuck Schwartz predicted, “should whitebark pine decline rapidly, we speculate that we would witness a scenario similar to what occurred when dumps were closed in Yellowstone National Park: more management problems, particularly outside the Recovery Zone, with a substantial increase in measureable bear mortality.”

To respond to this situation in 2009, the IGBC developed a set of 31 recommendations to address anticipated bear-human conflicts. There were many good suggestions in this document, but to date little progress has been made to sort, prioritize, and implement those most likely to be effective in a range of circumstances. Exceptions to this include the National Park Service (Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks do a phenomenal job to keep bears and people safe), and the Bureau of Land Management in Dillon, which recently required outfitters to carry bear spray, a proven deterrent in bear encounters.

With more than half of the whitebark pine dead, and the beetle epidemic far from over, from now on every year will be bad–nay, worse–for whitebark pine, bears, nutcrackers, watershed health and the functioning of these high mountain ecosystems. That is a tragic, inconvenient fact. We need to brace ourselves and the public for bear encounters as never before. And we need agency leadership, not denial, to make needed progress.

NRDC has contributed to conflict prevention efforts, such as purchasing bear-resistant dumpsters in Gardiner, near the north entrance of Yellowstone Park, but much more is needed to keep both people and bears safe. I should emphasize that this is in no way to criticize the hard toil of the agency folks on the ground, who are doing the best they can to pick up the pieces.

Protecting public safety is what government is for. But leadership and resources in this arena are sorely lacking. Big game hunting season is hard upon us–the time when, typically, a lot of bears die and a lot of conflicts with hunters happen.

Will we continue to deny reality, or will we get ready?


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