By Michelle Werts

Yellowstone National Park has a long, storied history — especially when it comes to its wildlife.

Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright with some wild friends in 1922. Credit: George A. Grant/National Park Service

Then, there are the ubiquitous snapshots of tourists and park employees mingling with bears from the early 1900s.

And, wouldn’t you know, those bears are still making headlines today — beyond stealing pic-a-nic baskets, that is. Last week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling to reinstate grizzly bears to the endangered species list. What was the lynchpin of this victory? Forests, whitebark pine forests.

The U.S. first recognized the grizzlies’ threatened status in 1967, and in 1975, the species was granted protection under the Endangered Species Act. For the next 30-plus years, grizzlies found themselves protected from hunters’ crosshairs, and their population steadily increased. But an increase in population that corresponded with loss of habitat meant a resurgence of interaction with human visitors, and earlier this year, some of those interactions turned deadly.

In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) attempted to remove the grizzly from the endangered species list, indicating that the rejuvenated, steady population meant the bears were no longer at risk. The 9th Circuit Court disagreed. While the grizzlies may be recovering nicely, one of their primary food sources, whitebark pine, is now endangered.

Credit: Chris, MyBullDog/Flickr

This summer, the USFWS declared that whitebark pine’s inclusion on the endangered species list was “warranted,” as the entire species could be extinct in as little as two to three decades.

What’s the big deal about whitebark pine? It just happens to be the keystone species of the high-elevation forests of the Mountain West — and it’s dying at rapid rates from a disease called blister rust and a lot of pesky mountain pine beetles. You know those trees high on the mountaintop that form the treeline or the barrier between forests and the snowtops? If you’re in the West, those are likely to be whitebark pine. And those forests that they anchor help control and filter the water of the Colorado River basin — water that many of the southwestern states and agricultural fields of California rely on.

Grizzlies rely on the pine trees, too. Whitebark pine seeds are high-fat, high-energy morsels. Perfect for bears preparing for long, winter naps. If the whitebark goes, so does the grizzly’s primary autumnal meal. Not to mention the fact that when they’re feeding on trees high in the mountains, they’re not feeding near human populations, keeping both us and them safe. And this is why the 9th Circuit Court doesn’t think the grizzly bear is out of the woods. To save the bears, we have to save the trees.

And here at American Forests, we’re planning on doing everything we can to save the whitebark pine and its forests. Many of our Global ReLeaf projects are focused on reforesting devastated areas of whitebark pine, and as our CEO, Scott Steen, mentioned in the Autumn 2011 issue of American Forests, we’ll be launching a major campaign next year centered around our endangered Western forests. So stay tuned for more on this issue, as the grizzlies are just the tip of the iceberg.