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.
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Yet perhaps the greatest impact of the ruling could be the prospect of the government having to react to the potential cascading effects of global warming. The loss of keystone species, like the whitebark pine, might ripple through the biological food chain. Whitebark seeds nourish not only grizzlies but also Clark's nutcrackers and red squirrels, the latter serving as prey for other species.Skip to next paragraph
Scientists worry that if precipitation patterns are substantially altered in the decades ahead, groups of species could become imperiled, with the loss of one triggering declines in others.
Significantly, the judges acknowledged "a general consensus among the world's best scientists that climate change is occurring" and added, "the magnitude of warming in the northern Rocky Mountains has been particularly great."
In some ways, the court ruling clashes with a prevailing public perception that Yellowstone grizzlies no longer need the ESA. Since the Yellowstone bear population came under federal custodial status in 1975, numbers have tripled to about 600.
Government officials say the ruling ignores the fact that there are plenty of other natural foods for grizzlies to eat. Whitebark pine has all but vanished from Glacier National Park because of a disease outbreak 60 years ago, yet the bear population there today is a robust 900.
Biologist Chris Servheen, the US Fish and Wildlife Service's longtime coordinator of grizzly bear recovery, believes conservation groups are using whitebark to hold up delisting, and he worries it could incite a backlash against the ESA.
"This court ruling will further erode public support for sound grizzly conservation among the people who are most important to their survival – those who live, work, and recreate in bear habitat and the political forces who are responsive to these people," he says.
A new urgency
In the late 1990s, Mr. Servheen and colleagues began building the case to hand management of grizzlies over to Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. He says federal agencies beset by limited budgets should try to bolster less-healthy grizzly populations in areas such as the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem along the Montana-Canada border and the northern Cascades.
But by having the court recognize the connection between grizzlies and whitebark pine, advocates pushing for action on climate-change policy may have found a potent symbol for their cause.
Polar bears have received "threatened" status based upon the strong likelihood that Arctic ice will disappear, hobbling their ability to hunt. But the Nov. 22 court ruling points to climate-related impacts in the here and now, not looming in the future, Mr. Honnold says.
IN PICTURES: Climate change and animals