Back in 2009, environmentalists successfully challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to lift federal protections for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem. The victory hinged on the decline of whitebark pine in the region and the argument that grizzlies depend on the pine's nuts for much of their diet. Two other environmental groups are now wielding the same argument in an attempt to gain Endangered Species Act protections for another species: the whitebark pine itself.
The suit, filed Jan. 15 by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the WildWest Institute, proves once again that the fate of grizzlies and whitebark pine are intertwined in the courts. Whitebark pine is in decline throughout the Rockies due to climate change, fire suppression activities, mountain pine beetle and blister rust. Environmentalists contend it's also a critical food source for Yellowstone grizzliesa point Alliance spokesman Steve Kelly says has been "integral" to court rulings over the years.
"It's not that the bears can't adapt," Kelly says. "It's just, with the rapid change, how fast can the species adapt?"
None of this is news to FWS. The agency has felt legal pressure to list whitebark pine since 1991, and acknowledged the immediate threats to the trees in 2011 when it ruled that federal protections were warranted but precluded. Kelly says a final decision on listing is "long overdue."
FWS biologist Chris Servheen doesn't buy that Yellowstone grizzlies are whitebark pine "specialists." Sure, conflicts between bears and humans increase during years of low pine nut production, he says. But the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem experiences a similar spike when huckleberry crops are poor. Whitebark pine was wiped out in the NCDE decades ago, Servheen adds, yet the bears adapted and populations have been on the rise.
"Whitebark has been varying in availability from year to year for about 10,000 years," Servheen says. "Certainly it's been declining...but over time, we haven't seen any dramatic impact on grizzly bears."
Multiple agencies are now working on an exhaustive study of grizzly food sources in Yellowstonea study prompted by the lawsuit in 2009. The document will eventually inform a decision on delisting those grizzlies, which federal officials hope to accomplish by 2014. But it may also end up informing one of the key legal arguments for listing another species: the whitebark pine.