Assisted by warmer weather, pine beetles and blister rust have decimated high altitude whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service planned to delist grizzlies in the area in 2007, but the Greater Yellowstone Coalition challenged that decision. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy placed the bears back on the endangered species list in 2009, siding with those who fear the sharp decline of whitebark pine could threaten the population.
In appeals court, Fish and Wildlife argued for delisting, and the coalition argued against it.
“The Yellowstone grizzly has been the focus of a laudable, decades-long cooperative research effort — one that we hope continues” said the three panel justices’ ruling. “It may be that scientists will compile data demonstrating grizzly population stability in the face of whitebark pine declines. Such information, however, simply is not in the record before us.”
“There aren’t going to be any more good white bark pine years for a very long, long time,” said Jeff Welsch, Greater Yellowstone Coalition communications director in Bozeman, Mont.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must better articulate and prove with science that the decline in whitebark pine will not adversely affect the grizzly, said Mark Bruscino, Wyoming Game and Fish Department bear management program supervisor in Cody.
Bruscino said he believes it will not be a big problem proving with science that grizzlies can continue to thrive without whitebark, he said.
Every grizzly caught for study or relocation has their percentage of body fat measured. Overall the percentage does not change during good and bad whitebark years. “With the die-off in whitebark pine, body conditions remain the same,” Bruscino said.
But Welsch said there is a direct correlation between good whitebark years and an increase in the number of cubs the following spring.
Grizzlies need more habitat. The isolated Greater Yellowstone population can’t connect with grizzlies in places like Glacier National Park, Welsch said.
While it is essential to protect habitat for grizzlies, it also is essential to protect habitat for other wildlife and human recreation too, said Bruce Fauskee of Powell.
“Either expand their range or control the numbers,” Fauskee said.
Fauskee said he watched two grizzlies feeding on a horse carcass in the Wood River drainage in mid October. They were beautiful dark bears with silver humps.
“It was an amazing sight,” he said.
In the mid 1970s, there were fewer than 100 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. This year’s count from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team is 593, down from 603 last year.
The Fish and Wildlife Service revised the recovery plan in 1993, and it has been widely regarded as a success, said the judges.
Welsch said, “There is no question the recovery effort for the grizzly bear is a great conservation story.”
Delisting is feasible in the future, Welsch said.
“When the science shows that the time is right then yes, that’s the direction we (the coalition) want to go. But we’re clearly not there yet, and the court made that clear today,” he said.
Fauskee said grizzlies should be delisted, but then they should remain on the threatened list; if populations drop, they could be relisted, Fauskee said.
Bruscino said the ruling does not preclude eventual delisting.
“The agencies believe this is a ruling we can deal with and move forward at some point to get the bears delisted,” he said.
Gov. Matt Mead is reviewing the opinion and will look at Wyoming’s options over the next few weeks, said Renny MacKay, Mead’s communications director, in an email.