When Every Year is a Bad Whitebark Pine Year for Bears
Posted October 22, 2013 in Saving Wildlife and WIld Places
A recent study shows a strong relationship between poor whitebark pine years and the number of times bears are visible enough from roads to cause traffic jams in Yellowstone National Park. In fact, these “bear-jams” are 3 to 4 times more likely to happen during the fall season of a poor whitebark pine year than a good year as bears move around to find replacement foods for the highly nutritious whitebark pine seeds. Rather than staying under the cover of high-elevation forests, the bears travel to open landscapes and lower elevations to forage for alternative foods. This change in their location means bears are more likely to encounter humans and run into conflicts – resulting in a higher likelihood of ending up dead. Additionally, grizzly bear females are known to give birth to fewer cubs following a poor whitebark pine year, which results in a double whammy for the bear population. All of this should sound an alarm to grizzly bear managers because we are approaching a time, especially in the Yellowstone area, when all years will be poor years for whitebark pine.
In Yellowstone National Park, at least 3 out of 4 whitebark pine trees have died in the last decade, largely as a result of mountain pine beetle infestations related to climate change. With widespread death of whitebark pine trees and the estimated future decline throughout the species range, poor whitebark pine years will become commonplace. This fall is a particularly poor whitebark pine year for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) with an average cone production of 5.3 cones per tree, an 84% decrease from the average 33 cones per tree in 2012. The Wyoming Fish and Game Department, the Yellowstone Gate, and others are preparing hunters and residents in bear country for an increased chance of encountering grizzly bears this year.
These warnings along with the new study which was conducted by the IGBST (Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team) signal that grizzly bear researchers and management agencies recognize that the loss of whitebark pine means negative effects on the grizzly bear population. All of this comes at a time when the US Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating the impact of losing whitebark pine on the grizzly population in advance of their next attempt to delist them. Their last attempt to remove protections was overturned by the courts for failing to account for the effect of the loss of whitebark pine. More studies on the Yellowstone grizzly bear response to disappearing whitebark pine are expected this fall.
And we will be taking a close look at the results. The loss of whitebark pine has been recent and sudden – and its impacts on the grizzly bear population are likely to take time to fully understand. We believe that this new study only further supports our position that until the population is truly recovered and threats – including the loss of whitebark pine – have been addressed, the bears need continued endangered species protections, not another attempt to remove those protections.
(Photo: Christine Wilcox)