Yellowstone grizzly bears: New cause célèbre for effects of global warming?
For the first time, a US appellate court has ruled that the federal government must continue to protect an animal – in this case, Yellowstone grizzly bears – in part because of consequences of global warming.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.
Even more than their high-profile polar cousins, Yellowstone grizzly bears could become the newest cause célèbre for how global warming is threatening ecosystems worldwide.Skip to next paragraph
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On Nov. 22, a US appellate court ruled for the first time that the federal government must continue to protect an animal – in this case, Yellowstone grizzlies – in part because of the emerging effects of rising temperatures.
For environmentalists arguing that urgent congressional action to combat global warming is needed, the ruling is seen as a benchmark that establishes a legal foothold. It could lower the bar on when the government should take action to try to preserve species threatened by climate changes.
IN PICTURES: Climate change and animals
Moreover, the ruling opens the door to charges that federal programs designed to conserve species one at a time – such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA) – could be overwhelmed by a mega-event like climate change, which could affect whole suites of flora and fauna.
"It raises the question of what happens when one species gets in trouble, and its decline pulls the rug out from another species," says attorney Doug Honnold, who helped conservation groups halt the removal of grizzlies from federal protection.
Decline of a key food source
In its ruling, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the country's famous Yellowstone bruin population should remain classified as "threatened" under the ESA. The reason: One of its primary food sources is being wiped out, with help from global warming, many scientists say.
Grizzlies gorge on highly nutritious seeds in the cones of whitebark pines. Studies show the nutlike edibles are important in producing healthier, fatter bears and larger numbers of cubs. In addition, because whitebark grow on remote mountain ridgelines, their location draws foraging bears away from places where people live.
However, within the past decade, an outbreak of mountain pine beetles and a disease called blister rust have decimated the whitebark pine forest. Aerial surveys indicate that more than 80 percent of whitebark trees are now dead or dying.
Experts blame warmer temperatures with hastening the spread of beetles that otherwise would be beaten back by cold winters. They say the die-off is unprecedented, prompting an effort to have whitebark itself put on the federal protected list.
The Ninth Circuit's order stays in effect at least until the US Fish and Wildlife Service can figure out a way to deal with the whitebark pine forest's dramatic disappearance.
Indirectly, it also raises questions about similarly threatened species. For example, a tiny alpine rodent, the heat-intolerant pika, is disappearing from mountainous areas in the West. Biologists also worry about impacts of reduced snowpack trends on wolverine, white-tailed ptarmigan, and yellow-bellied marmot.