The ruling from Seattle’s U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy holds that the Bush Administration was misguided in its assertion that the bear population had rebounded to the point where it did not warrant protection. Instead of thriving after an “amazing” population comeback, Molloy ruled, the bears face long-term dangers because the potential loss of food sources like whitebark pine nuts due to global climate changes; those dangers are more than enough to warranted a continued protected status for grizzlies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
The biggest issue facing the grizzlies: the loss of whitebark pine nuts as a food source. Basically, whitebark pine trees are decreasing in number because of climate change: beetles that normally would be killed off in winter are now surviving because of warmer temperatures, and as these pests thrive whitebarks suffer.
The Bush Administration removed Yellowstone grizzlies from the Endangered Species List in 2007, saying their increased numbers were adequate for a sustainable population. That action was challenged in federal court by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, who argued the grizzlies face numerous challenges: besides the loss of whitebark pine nuts, the grizzly’s habitat has been lessened due to land-use changes in the region.
The grizzly-bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem now numbers 580, a number than fluctuates annually by 10 percent or so, though in 2008 79 grizzlies were killed. While the number is higher than in previous years, it’s not to the point where the population is considered by experts to be sustainable; indeed, the core of Molloy’s ruling points out scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not consider that population to be sustainable, but their concerns were overruled by politicians in the Bush Administration.
“Our hope now is that the Fish & Wildlife Service goes back to the drawing board and comes up with a plan that provides appropriate habitat protections and addresses long-term threats to bears,” said Craig Kenworthy, GYC’s conservation director, in a press release.
“The judge recognized what we have been saying all along: Protecting grizzlies requires enforceable, science-based standards to protect habitat,” said Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a press release.
No word from the Fish & Wildlife Service as to what’s next. We’d be very surprised if the Obama Administration challenged the ruling, however.
Photo by John Good, courtesy of the National Park Service.