Louisa Willcox’s Blog, In NRDC’s Switchboard,Yellowstone Bears Back in Court: Last Round on Delisting?

More about the belaguered Yellowstone Grizzly Bear.
In about an hour, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear a case that is critical to the future of Yellowstone’s imperiled grizzly bears. I am here in Portland, where rhododendrons are already blooming – a stark contrast to the whiteout (and white knuckle) conditions I drove through yesterday morning, with snow falling so thick that my plane delayed takeoff until the pilot could see the runway.

Bears don’t know that their fate will be, again, the focus of intense judicial scrutiny, but a few are already up and about in Yellowstone – earlier than normal for bears. Scientists are finding that some bears are getting up earlier (and denning later), and they posit that warming temperatures may contribute to this behavioral change. Although experts do not yet know all the effects of climate change on an animal that is so closely attuned to the conditions of its habitat, I do know that climate impacts on bears are going to be a major topic of discussion in the next hour or so, particularly the massive climate-driven loss of whitebark pine, a key food source for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

The fact is that the government never looked at the potential consequences of a long-term, significant loss of whitebark pine on Yellowstone grizzlies in its 2007 decision to remove endangered species protections for this population. Its scientists evaluated the effects of annual variation of whitebark pine seed crops, but did not consider what would happen if whitebark pine suffered a major die-off. Yet that is precisely what happened; and today, just 8 or so years after the climate-driven outbreak of mountain pine beetles in whitebark pine was detected, whitebark has died throughout most of its range in the Great Yellowstone Ecosystem. And, whitebark pine was not the only major bear food to suffer during this time: cutthroat trout, formerly an important spring bear food, has also be eliminated by warming temperatures, drought and an invasive species, Lake trout.

So, bears are waking up to fewer options on the menu, especially major staples, as well as mounting development. These changes do not bode well for an animal that is particularly vulnerable to development, and needs to roam hundreds of square miles to pack on the pounds needed to get through a long winter’s sleep.

I am here to witness the courtroom drama over the Great Bear’s fate, and to lend support to my colleagues at Earthjustice, who have worked so hard and for so long to ensure that there is a bright future for one of Yellowstone’s most iconic – and threatened – species. The grizzly bear is incredibly fortunate to have such talented and dedicated attorneys as Doug Honnold, Jenny Harbine and Sean Helle.

Today they will make the case that a Federal District Judge was correct in his 2009 ruling in a case brought by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition that restored endangered species protections to the Yellowstone population. The ruling focused on inadequacies in the plans by the three states to manage the grizzly population after delisting, and the threats to a key food, whitebark pine, which experts maintain drives the health of the Yellowstone population. The judge found that that government’s argument claiming that whitebark pine does not matter to the health of the population was not supported by the overwhelming evidence in the administrative record that whitebark is, in fact, VERY important. But the federal government did not like the judge’s decision, and appealed the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — which is why we are here today.

In this case, NRDC has been helping out by providing additional detail on the complex whitebark pine issue in an Amicus or “Friend of the Court” brief. In a separate action, we have also been making progress on a petition to list whitebark throughout its range under the Endangered Species Act.

What happens in the case matters: Yellowstone’s grizzly bears are still threatened and need federal protection. They are among the last of 5 populations left in the lower 48-states, which are today only 1% of the numbers at the time of European settlement. Yellowstone is one of their last stands.

In addition to the problems posed by warming temperatures and development, Yellowstone’s grizzly bears have been isolated from other bear populations for over 100 years. According to experts, bears here have lost some of their genetic diversity, which is important for the population to adapt to changes in their environment. What was the government’s proposed response to this problem in the delisting rule? Just truck in bears from other areas. NRDC and other conservationists have long argued that if such draconian, artificial and expensive steps are needed, then bears are not truly recovered. Scientists such as Dr. Lance Craighead have shown that there is a better, more natural and long-lasting way to achieve recovery: allow bears to roam between grizzly bears ecosystems by protecting important land corridors, such as the Centennial Mountains. Our vision for recovery, based on work of numerous scientists, looks towards expanded grizzly populations in suitable habitat within and between the populations of the Northern Rockies.

Maintaining endangered species protections is not only important to address current habitat and connectivity challenges, but to deal with mounting conflicts and unsustainably high numbers of grizzly bear mortalities. Last year, for example, we witnessed the death of about 75 grizzlies, or roughly 13% of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem population. With the lowest reproductive rate of any mammal in North America, the grizzly is particularly sensitive to human-caused mortality: if years like 2010 become the norm, we would expect the population to suffer a potentially major decline.

It is because of the inherent vulnerability of this animal, combined with ongoing threats to its habitat, that we have fought so long and hard to ensure that adequate protections are in place and that agencies make decisions that err on the side of the bear. Another reason is that grizzlies are among the most important species in the ecosystems where they live. They are considered by many experts to be the best barometer of the integrity of their ecosystems: if grizzly bears are healthy, so too are other wildlife, from songbirds to big game.

The importance of protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for sustaining and improving the lot of Yellowstone grizzly bears cannot be overestimated. Since bears were listed in 1975, it has been possible to secure protections for vast lands in the ecosystems where they live —protections that the government would not have otherwise afforded. The Park Service cleaned up its act, by pursuing major sanitation initiatives and hiring dedicated crews of rangers to enforce rules to keep bears from becoming habituated to human foods: these steps were critical, as garbage-addicted bears die at very high rates and also pose a safety hazard to the public. The Forest Service retired or moved numerous sheep grazing allotments out of bear habitat because of major conflicts between grizzly bears and sheep herders, the result of bears’ inability to resist dining on mutton if given a chance. The Forest Service also restored large tracts of degraded habitat and closed hundreds of miles of roads.

What many people may not appreciate is how many of these measures, particularly related to habitat management by the Forest Service, was the direct result of litigation by conservationists. The capable attorneys at Earthjustice scored many of these wins. This litigation was successful in large measure because of the ESA’s requirement to use the best available science and to take a precautionary approach to avoid harming listed species.

Today, in the face of rapid changes in their environment and ongoing threats, Yellowstone grizzlies still need endangered species protections. The ESA’s requirements of scientific oversight for agency activities, a precautionary approach to decision-making, and the law’s prohibition against killing threatened species will all be essential to achieving long-term recovery for the Yellowstone grizzly. Continued ESA protections will help ensure that future generations will have the thrill of being able to see a grizzly in the wild in and around our nation’s oldest park.


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