Good News, But Yellowstone Grizzlies Aren't Out of the Woods Yet

Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park
Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park

Grizzly bears and the many people working to protect them received great news recently: Last week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave its long-awaited ruling on whether the Yellowstone grizzly bear should lose federal Endangered Species Act protection (ESA).

Thankfully, the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, agreeing that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not done an adequate job of justifying why the grizzly should lose federal protection, given that one of the grizzly’s main food sources — seeds of the whitebark pine tree — is rapidly disappearing. Specifically, the Court ruled “that federal wildlife biologists were wrong when they concluded the decline of Whitebark pine trees was not detrimental to the bears’ future.”

Sierra Club wholeheartedly agrees and we applaud the Court’s ruling.

The seeds of the whitebark pine comprise one of the Yellowstone grizzly’s main food sources during the fall before their winter hibernation — and the abundance of those seeds is in serious decline due to intensifying bark beetle outbreaks as a result of global climate disruption. Earlier this year, the federal government officially determined that protection of the whitebark pine is “warranted” under the Endangered Species Act, due to its steep decline across the Greater Yellowstone region.

While grizzly advocates prevailed in the legal arena this time, it does not mean the bear is out of the woods yet, so to speak.

Since the Yellowstone grizzly was given Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection in 1975, the number of bears has increased from as few as 136 to more than 600 today. That’s a success. But removing federal protection now from this still-vulnerable population would be foolish and premature.

We don’t know all of the ways in which the loss of whitebark pine seeds will affect the grizzly’s behavior and movement in the Yellowstone region. But we do know that there is a direct correlation between years in which whitebark cone production is low and the number of conflicts between humans and bears.

With the widespread decline of whitebark pine, bears are moving to lower elevations — where more people live — in search of other foods. According to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, “Our studies have demonstrated a relationship between cone counts and bear mortality. In years of poor cone production, bear conflicts and deaths increase.”

In addition to loss of one of its major food sources, the grizzly faces many other threats to its survival, including habitat loss from oil and gas drilling, mining, and logging. Habitat loss affects not only the grizzly: since grizzlies need very large swaths of habitat to survive, protecting them also protects a whole host of other wild species that share the grizzly’s range, including wolves, elk, mule deer, mountain goats, moose, wolverine, and the mountain streams where native trout spawn.

Each of these important species provides economic benefits for the many local economies and communities, which are bolstered by outdoor recreation (a job creator!) and other diverse benefits of healthy wildlands, clean air, and clean water.  So the court’s ruling is also good news for communities near Yellowstone.

Sierra Club has been involved in protecting the grizzly bear and its habitat in the Yellowstone region for decades: we’ve fought in the legal arena to keep bears under the protection of the ESA, organized tens of thousands of people to influence federal and state grizzly bear conservation plans, financially supported the permanent retirement of cattle and sheep grazing allotments on federal lands in prime grizzly country, and worked hand-in-hand with state agencies on education programs to decrease conflicts between bears and hunters, and bears and landowners.

We will continue this important work in the coming year with our regional and national partners, seeking new opportunities to decrease conflicts between humans and bears through education and outreach programs, working to stop any legislative proposals to reduce protection for the Yellowstone grizzly at this critical time, opposing damaging oil and gas development and other threats to our public lands, and ensuring that federal land management plans emphasize protecting grizzly habitat.

And as climate change and the subsequent shifting of historic food sources causes grizzlies to seek food and better habitats in other places, we are working to protect important wildlife corridors between Yellowstone National Park and other areas of large, intact wildlands such as Central Idaho’s Frank Church and Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness areas.

The grizzly bear is an American wildlife icon, and a key component of our unique wildlife heritage in the West. Each year, millions of visitors come to the Yellowstone region hoping to catch a glimpse of this symbol of wildness.

From my office in Washington DC this week, I reflected back on a trip I took to Greater Yellowstone this past summer. I wasn’t lucky enough to see a grizzly — but it meant the world to me to know that they are there, and that their number is growing, thanks to the Endangered Species Act and the work of so many people dedicated to their protection.

Safeguarding grizzly bears means creating, connecting, and protecting important wildlands to give these majestic creatures room to roam and the best chance possible to adjust to changing conditions. It’s up to all of us to protect them. After all, what would Yellowstone be without the grizzly?

— Fran Hunt, Director of the Sierra Club Resilient Habitats Campaign. Photo by Jim Mewes.

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