BILLINGS — Facing the combined pressures of habitat loss, hunters and climate change, 600 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park are going back on the threatened species list under a federal court order issued Monday.
The ruling highlighted climate change’s devastation to whitebark pine forests, which produce nuts that some grizzlies rely upon as a mainstay.
With hundreds of thousands of the trees dead or dying over the last two decades, bears striking out in search of new food sources increasingly are being shot in conflicts with humans.
“There is a connection between whitebark pine and grizzly survival,” U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy wrote in Monday’s ruling.
Hunting for grizzlies is illegal. But at least 20 were killed last year by hunters acting in self-defense or after mistaking them for other animals.
The greater Yellowstone area of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming has one of the densest concentrations of grizzlies in the lower 48 states. The animals were declared recovered in March 2007 after bouncing back from near-extermination last century.
At the time, the grizzly bear program was touted by the Bush administration as a model framework for restoring at-risk species, successfully balancing conservation and the pressures of human development.
But in his ruling, Molloy sharply criticized the rationale behind the decision and ordered the Obama administration to immediately restore the animal’s threatened status.
The 46-page ruling resolves a lawsuit brought by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Bozeman group that had argued the bruins’ recovery remained tenuous. A separate lawsuit in federal court in Idaho still is pending.
Molloy cited as a key factor in his decision the decline of whitebark pine, which has suffered widespread damage from forest fires, pine beetles and other factors that researchers say are exacerbated by a warming climate.
Government researchers have made similar links. However, those results were downplayed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its 2007 decision.
“There is a disconnect between the studies the agency relies on here and its conclusions,” Molloy wrote.
Molloy also said that state and federal conservation plans meant to protect Yellowstone-area grizzlies were inadequate. He said the government relied too heavily on population monitoring and failed to spell out what steps would be taken if grizzly numbers started to fall.
A Fish and Wildlife spokesman said Monday that Molloy’s ruling was under review. Grizzlies were first listed as endangered in 1975. The government has spent more than $20 million on its effort to restore the species.
“We’re going to take some time with this ruling because it’s so significant,” Fish and Wildlife spokesman Matt Kales said. “This is obviously a pretty big policy matter for us. Our first and foremost concern remains with the status of the bear.”
Wyoming U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis called Molloy’s ruling an “abuse” of the Endangered Species Act.
“Subverting the Endangered Species Act through judicial activism under the auspice of climate change would be laughable if the impacts weren’t so dire for Wyoming’s public land users,” she said.
The conservation director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Craig Kenworthy, said threats to grizzlies “are likely to accelerate” as climate change intensifies and more tree-killing beetles survive milder winters.
It’s unknown how many of Yellowstone’s grizzlies are heavily dependent on whitebark pine, said Gregg Losinski with Idaho Fish and Game.
“Yes it was a concern, but as far as a food source it never was found universally across the ecosystem for all the bears,” said Losinski, member of a federal-states coordinating committee that oversees the region’s grizzlies.
Four other groups totaling about 900 grizzlies — all in the Northwest —— have never lost their threatened status.
Full grown male grizzlies can weigh 800 pounds and stand 8 feet tall. Most are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals.
As many as 50,000 of the animals once ranged the western half of the United States — striking terror in early European settlers who routinely shot, poisoned and trapped grizzlies until they were reduced to less than 2 percent of their historic range.
The Yellowstone-area population has grown from an estimated 200 animals in 1981 to more than 600 today.
Environmentalists said Monday’s ruling underscored the need for government agencies to pay more heed to the damage climate change can cause.
“The decline of the whitebark pine is one more wake-up call that we urgently need to address the cause of many species’ impending extinctions,” said Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity. Robinson’s group is a plaintiff in the Idaho grizzly lawsuit that remains pending.
Climate change was cited in the 2008 listing of polar bears as a threatened species, because warmer temperatures has melted sea ice that the bears depend on. And in 2006, concerns over climate change led to the listing of two species of coral, staghorn and elkhorn.