Yesterday, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee issued a decision supporting the development of a new rule to lift Endangered Species Act protections for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The announcement came in the wake of a highly anticipated food synthesis report conducted in part to determine the impact of declining whitebark pine stands on factors like population density, human-caused mortalities, body condition and diet. Dramatic reductions in whitebark pine prompted courts to overturn a previous delisting rule from 2007.
The IGBC voted unanimously to recommend that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proceed with a new delisting rule.
According to the food synthesis report, the future of whitebark pine in the Yellowstone area does remain uncertain “in light of climate change.” However, biologists noted that the tree’s decline has has “no negative effects on grizzly bears at the individual or population level.” Grizzlies are an opportunistic species, and the work done by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team revealed that the bears have responded to whitebark decline by seeking out alternative food sources. While the report did acknowledge that population growth in Yellowstone has slowed in the past decade, it posited that the trend could be a result of the population reach its carrying capacity, concluding that “evidence from demographic analyses indicates that the change in population trajectory was more associated with grizzly bear density, primarily through reduced cub survival and reproductive transition, rather than whitebark pine decline.”
Several environmental groups immediately criticized the IGBC’s recommendation, and voiced concern that the food synthesis study had not taken into account the decline of another grizzly food source in Yellowstone: Elk. “In their desire to please the states, the feds are looking at the bear’s status through rose-colored glasses,” Louisa Wilcox, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a release Wednesday. “We’re already seeing greater bear mortality as a result of conflicts related to bears eating more meat, and even potential declines in the population. Loss of protection will only exacerbate these trends.”
The question of delisting officially rests with FWS, which will review the food synthesis report and decide whether to draft a delisting rule. According to the IGBC, that decision could be reached as early as next month. Any proposal to delist the population next year would first be published for public comment.