This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Bears, beware: If you thrive you could have your future health and safety left up to states where killing wildlife is considered a god-given right, even a duty.
Officials working for Montana, Wyoming and Idaho and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service want to remove the majestic grizzly bear from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Fortunately, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the agency's bid to end the decades-long, $20 million effort to save the bears from extinction.
The court's reasonable decision will extend protection for the bears two to three years. But in the meantime, the states and federal wildlife officials are building a case for delisting the animals and turning over their "management" to the three states in the Greater Yellowstone Area. Hunters are not endangered in those three states, and they would like nothing better than to add a magnificent grizzly to their trophy collections.
The court is rightly concerned about the alarming die-off of whitebark pine trees in the region. Some 70 percent of the trees have died in the Yellowstone region in the past decade from insect infestations and disease blamed at least in part on warming global temperatures. The trees traditionally provide grizzlies with a critically important food source: high-fat, high-calorie pine seeds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the bears are making up for the loss, in part, by dining on mushrooms called false truffles.
But some experts scoff at that claim and say a slight downturn in the number of grizzlies in the past year is due to the disappearance of the whitebark pines. And they say the decrease will worsen, because false truffles are not an alternative to whitebark pine seeds.
Dave Smith, an author of books about bear habitat who has lived in Alaska and worked in Yellowstone National Park, says "Grizzlies could eat all the truffles in Yellowstone and France and not get 1/10,000th of the calories they used to get from whitebark pine seeds."
Besides, false truffles do not grow at higher mountain elevations but closer to where people live, hike and camp.
Wildlife officials will have to prove to the court's satisfaction that bear numbers will stabilize despite the loss of their primary food source. And they plan to change the way they count bears to help raise the number. The Yellowstone region had an estimated 593 bears last year, down from more than 600 in 2010, and the death rate has increased rapidly as pine nuts disappeared.
Wildlife managers should be objective as they consider the bears' future and avoid simply trying to justify a theory they have already embraced as fact.