Grizzly Managers Spin Whitebark Pine Woes: Just How Important is Whitebark to Yellowstone Bears?

Very important.

Interesting post by NRDC’s Louisa Wilcox about how the science shows how critical whitebark pine nuts are for grizzlies and how the managers talk out of both sides of their mouth.

“In its August 9th legal brief challenging the 2009 ruling by Federal Judge Donald Molloy that required relisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear under the Endangered Species Act, federal attorneys said, “the grizzly does not depend on whitebark pine for its survival. The grizzly is a very successful omnivore, and that…they will somehow be able to adapt to a decline in whitebark pines.” The legal briefs then go on to dismiss the issue of whitebark pine relationships to grizzly bear vital rates, including mortality risks, as well as the reproductive success of females. This argument, as the district court ruled, and I will discuss later, runs counter to the evidence on the record.

Then, just yesterday, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team sent out a press release saying, “the scarcity of whitebark pine cones this year may be driving bears to find food at lower elevations, where there is more human activity, increasing the chances of bear-human interactions.” (This comes in a year when 22 grizzly bears are known to have died, and many human-bear conflicts have occurred — months before bears will den up.)”

Grizzly Managers Spin Whitebark Pine Woes: Just How Important is Whitebark to Yellowstone Bears?.
Louisa Willcox’s Blog | Switchboard, from NRDC


  1. Virginia Avatar

    This is truly a complete, if frightening, article to confirm what we all know is happening to white bark pines. Just hike up Avalanche Peak right inside the east entrance to Yellowstone Park. The massive die-off of white bark pines is devastating in that area. I would be willing to bet that Mike Enzi has never seen a white bark pine tree in his life and knows nothing about grizzly bears either. When I worked for the Forest Service on the timber crew, we saw the beginning of the beetle kill of white bark pines, which seemed to follow the devastation of beetles on the lodgepole pines. At that time, only the limber pines seemed to be immune from the beetles and they have probably begun to kill those trees as well. It is a real crisis for bears and all creatures as Louisa says.

    1. Cody Coyote Avatar
      Cody Coyote

      Yup. Every specie of pine has its own complementary pine beetle. It’s only a matter of time.

      Virginia, we will never get the likes of Mike Enzi or Cynthia Lummis to admit that the epidemic of pine beetles across the West and Canada is largely due to global climate change. In other words, the offspring of their espoused beliefs and the policies of their predecessors in advancing Big Oil and King Coal for profit over the concerns for consequences. Well, the real costs of rampant hydrocarbon exploitation are being hand delivered by those beetles as we write.

  2. Carol Vinzant Avatar

    I was amazed that the agency came out with their report denying any link between white bark pine and bear behavior just days after the 2nd bear attack this year. They even say in their report that they felt they needed to issue it because of an obscure op-ed in the NYT.
    The bears in the second attack were all severely underweight, but they were too focused on the politics of the ESA to notice.

  3. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    It was reported in the incident report, the bears were underweight, but still within the expected range for bears of this age as well as the conditions in the area.

    It seems as if some groups and people are skewing the information for their own purposes, I have read comments that says the sow had an “extreme” parasitic infestation, the actual terms used was “Moderate to High”

    When using terms such as “Severe” and “Extreme” it tends to paint a picture of the situation that is not true, whitebark pine nuts did not play a role in these two fatal attacks, they happened before the crop would be coming on.

    Forensic tests showed that the sow in the second mauling had not been using whitebark pines as a food source in the past…

    Now I agree 100% the pine trees are in a desperate state, but in trying to link them to these attacks things are being distorted..

    1. Cutthroat Avatar

      Could it not be the case that this mother had given up on white bark pine nuts as a food source because of either lack of success in finding a good enough source because of their increased scarcity or because of being chased out of the few remaining plentiful pine nut source areas by more dominate bears?

    2. Save bears Avatar
      Save bears

      Cutthroat, it could very well be that sometime in the past, that may have happened, but it is still no explanation as to why this incident occurred…

      As the link that JeffE provided in his post, shows this was not a situation that is out of the norm for bears at this time of year..

      My only concern is some seem to be trying to link the attacks to bolster the support for listing the pine, which in my opinion is the wrong approach.

      If the pine needs to be listed, then there is enough evidence on its own to do this, linking the attacks, is simply skewing information to sensationalize the issue.

  4. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    “Mean monthly weights by sex and age class indicated adult grizzly bears lost weight from den emergence through July, generally regaining emergence weight by August (Fig. 3).”
    ” Pooled samples indicated weaned yearlings steadily
    lost weight July-September, whereas unweaned yearlings
    gained weight during the same period (Fig. 3).
    By September, weaned yearlings weighed an average
    21.7 kg less than unweaned yearlings”

    It appears that the sow and cubs were following a known trend in wight loss for grizzles and were within the known weight range for grizzlies.
    Why exactly the sow did what she did may never be determined for sure.

    1. JEFF E Avatar
      JEFF E

      “Worstell said a visual examination of the cubs indicated that they were small, but relatively healthy”

      as opposed to her Aug 1 “malnourished ” comment,

      which started the whole “their starving” hand wringing which apparently is going to be manipulated by any one with an agenda, be it wolves, pine nuts, or space aliens.

  5. pointswest Avatar

    It was the weather. It was a very, very unusual winter/spring this year. I watched the weather and snowpack levels all winter and spring. The area was in drought all winter with snow packs down to 30% of normal or even less in some areas. There were reports that some bears were emerging from the den in March when the weather turned warm. That is very early. Normally, snow packs hit their maximum in March. Then in late April, in May, well into June there was unsually snowy weather. This late spring snow was so heavy, that it brought snowpacks back to near normal levels. I watched it on webcams and on the published snotel reports on the IDWR website.

    It was very, very unusual weather. The farmers in Ashton could not get their crops in the field this spring. Some plantings had to be abandoned because there was not enough growing season left when the cold and wet weather finally ended in late June. Everything was late.

    Any bears that emerged from the den in March probably had a tough go of it this year since they emerged just in time be be burried in three or four feet of snow over the next eight to ten weeks. The sow, with the three nursing cubs, obviously had a very tough time. She may have survived until June when she started grazing and browsing early spring plants but as soon as they dried up she was in trouble again. She was probably beginning to starve.

    It had nothing to do with whitebark pine nuts.

    1. STG Avatar

      Good analysis–makes a lot a sense.

  6. Virginia Avatar

    I didn’t think that Louisa was making a connection between the devastation of the white bark pine trees and any bear attacks. This thread seems to have taken a trip back to another story.


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Ken Cole