By Doyle Irvin, American Forests
What happened to the grizzly bear?
Once the king of the forest and ranging from Mexico to Alaska, human intervention wiped them out in 98 percent of their original territory throughout the lower 48 states. Now, they mostly only exist in Yellowstone National Park and northwestern Montana. In 1975, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed them as “threatened,” there were believed to be only 136 grizzlies left in the Greater Yellowstone Area.
The primary area within Yellowstone for grizzlies is the forests of whitebark pine. These trees are some of the most rugged, when it comes to weather and altitude. They can survive where many other species die to exposure and drought, meaning that whitebark pine dominated (past tense being important) the upper regions of the Rocky Mountains. They are one of the key elements that holds the diverse Yellowstone ecosystem in balance, preventing erosion, preserving watershed, creating food and providing shelter to many native species.
Whitebark pine seeds themselves can have as much fat in them as a stick of butter. Because the seeds are distributed by birds who prefer to bury them in open areas, the whitebark pine is also one of the first recovery species in areas that have been burnt in forest fires, acting as a “tree island initiator.” The shade that the trees provide for snowfall keeps the snowpack intact for longer periods of time, maintaining normal water levels in the rivers deep into the summer. Grizzly bears need their whitebark pine habitats in Yellowstone to survive: without their nutritious seeds in this high-altitude habitat, the more they need to search lower human-populated altitudes for food.
Restoration efforts since 1975 brought the bear population back to nearly 800. Unfortunately, these efforts were not prepared for the next threat to the bears, the death of their habitat. Due to protective laws, hunters are not allowed to kill bears in Yellowstone, but beetles and blister rust don’t play by our rules.
In the last decade, mountain pine beetles have reduced entire vistas of forest in Yellowstone to dead, gray trees, and some areas infected by blister rust have mortality rates of more than 90 percent. Climate change is a large part of this. The freezing cold that normally regulates the mountain pine beetle population has been less effective because temperatures are warmer at higher elevations. This means that the beetle’s life cycle now happens in less than a year, allowing populations to expand exponentially.
American Forests has been hard at work protecting and restoring Yellowstone’s unrivalled habitat, working with local agencies to identify blister rust-resistant strains of whitebark pine for plantings. Since 1999, we have planted 300,000 whitebark pine trees, but it is not nearly enough. An estimated 77 percent of whitebark pine communities throughout the entirety of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains may be afflicted by pine beetles or blister rust.
This year, as part of our Home for the Holidays initiative, we, along with a number of corporate partners and individuals — just like you — are helping to protect this important part of our heritage. Join us in our efforts to protect the grizzly bear, the whitebark pine and all the species that rely on these magnificent remnants of the American wild by contributing to our Home for the Holidays initiative.