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New Alternative Fails to Meet Need for Expanded Habitat

As the temperature drops below zero, Yellowstone bison are traversing to lower elevations in search of grass and warmer temperatures. Unfortunately, for 900 of these bison, they will be captured and shipped to slaughter. The rest will be hazed back into Yellowstone National Park once the warmth of spring rolls around–unless Montana Governor Bullock decides to allow Yellowstone bison year-round habitat on Montana lands immediately adjacent to the Park.

For well over a year, the State of Montana failed to act on a joint environmental assessment for year-round habitat for Yellowstone bison. Drafted by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Department of Livestock, this historic proposal received over 100,000 comments, most of which were in favor of the biggest expansion, Alternative B. In early 2014, the decision passed on to the Board of Livestock to pick a preferred alternative. In front of them was a compromised proposal of tiering habitat expansion to a decrease in population numbers. Despite this, the Board failed to act.

Seven months later, the State released an “Addendum to the Year-round Bison Habitat Draft Joint Environmental Assessment.” In this addendum, FWP and DoL added an additional alternative, Alternative G. Alternative G is based off of the compromised proposal set before the Board of Livestock. In this, if the bison population is over 4,500, they get no expanded habitat and bison management continues as usual. With the proposed winter slaughter of 900 bison, the population will drop to 4,000, opening up Horse Butte year-round. Hazing in the spring will still need to occur, to chase the bison on areas outside the “tolerance” areas and into Horse Butte and the Park. If the population falls below 3,500, the habitat expands from Horse Butte up towards the Taylor Fork near Highway 191. If the bison population rises above 4,500, bison management continues as usual with hazing and no expanded habitat.The State fails to provide a reason why less bison will trigger habitat expansion.

Expanded habitat for bison offers many benefits, including a reduction in costs associated with the hazing and slaughtering of bison. This benefit is negated by the State’s “attempt.”

The State is opening up a 30-day comment period, which closes December 11. We urge the Governor to heed to the tens of thousands comments received in support of expanded habitat. Click on this link to submit a public comment online. You can also mail comments to:

MFWP – Bison Addendum

PO Box 200701

Helena MT, 59620

Kiersten Iwai is Sierra Club’s GYE organizer. Questions, comments, want to help out? Contact her at kiersten.iwai@sierraclub.org, or give her a call at (406) 582-8365 x2.

Kiersten_Iwai

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We are that future generation.

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The view from up top–Ramshorn Lake

Despite being exhausted and hungry, we arrived at our camp in high spirits. The intoxicating feeling of adventuring in the backcountry poured through us as we pitched our tents and started a fire. Night was quickly upon us, followed by light snow flakes that blanketed the fields and trees.

This past weekend, the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign partnered with the Wilderness Club at Montana State University to backpack into Ramshorn Lake in the Gallatin Range. After a steep summit to Ramshorn Peak, we hiked along the ridge, marveling at the spectacular views and diverse geology. We found petrified wood and a fossilized feather, many burs that stuck to our pants and mud that caked our boots, and drainages and rock screes. We passed a trio of hunters packing out a mountain goat, finding the leftover guts along the way. Birds soared overhead, and we knew other wildlife was likely nearby. We saw herds of mountain goats; their balance and grace amazing us as they moved around the steep unstable mountainside. We, on the other hand, stumbled around, slipping and sliding.

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Mountain goats!

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Traversing the ridge.

We were nine young people, seeking an escape from the routine tasks the normal week brings and the opportunity to truly feel alive in the wild. We bonded and together we overcame our challenges and obstacles with positive attitudes and smiles. Despite varying levels of hiking experience and gear, the MSU students stuck together and helped to assure all participants were able to complete the rigorous journey over the ridge and to our backcountry camp.

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We made it to the peak!

We awoke the next morning to four inches of snow on the ground, and with a couple more inches falling throughout the morning. Fortunately, we had the hot blaze of a fire to keep us warm. The stark contrast between the sunny dry Saturday to the frozen palace on Sunday reminded us how quickly things change in the mountains.

Ramshorn Lake is in the core of the Gallatin Range, and the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area. Just a few miles north of Yellowstone National Park, this area serves as crucial habitat for wildlife migrating to and from the park. The future of the WSA remains unknown, but it’s easy to see how permanent protection is needed.

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The view in the morning.

I often hear how people want to protect our lands and watersheds for future generations–not only the chance to have clean air and clean water, but to pass along the same recreational opportunities to explore and heal. Well, the future generation is here. We are that future generation–we are your children, your grandkids, and your future in-laws. We care about the future of our backyard, the fate the Gallatin Range. But many are also disillusioned by the political process and the exclusivity of politics. We get blamed for problems of today’s society that we were born into and we will be the ones who face the consequences.

And yes, many of us are apathetic and apolitical. It can be so easy to get lost in the steady rhythm of work, classes, and friends. Once the workday ends, it can be so easy to just hit the trails and not think about the threats. It can be so easy to grab a beer with friends and watch the football game, oblivious to the world outside. But at the same time, aren’t we all like that, no matter what age?

We are the solutions and have the energy needed to carry on an environmental stewardship ethic of caring for the planet. But first we need those openings; those chances to be involved in a space that we feel comfortable in: those openings that allow our voices to be heard and valued.

So as I write this, I’m dreaming about the next adventure, the next peak to summit, and the next drainage to follow. I’m dreaming about roasting marshmallows over a crackling fire, and the fresh snow that will soon fall on our mountains. I’m dreaming how we can connect all those who love the Gallatin Range and work together to protect it forever.

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Is any site so beautiful?

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The trek back.

Kiersten Iwai is one of the Sierra Club’s GYE organizers. Questions, comments, want to help out? Contact her at kiersten.iwai@sierraclub.org, or give her a call at (406) 582-8365 x2.

Kiersten_Iwai

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Victory! Federal Protections Restored for Wyoming Wolves

Gray Wolf 024

Wolves in Wyoming got a rare break yesterday when a federal judge reinstated federal protections for the animal. The judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred in removing federal Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in favor of the state’s wolf management plan in 2012. Represented by Earthjustice, Sierra Club and several partners including Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity challenged the delisting based on deep flaws in Wyoming’s management plan.

In her ruling United States District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson noted that the Service was “arbitrary and capricious” in accepting Wyoming’s management plan based solely on the state’s intentions to manage for a viable wolf population, and that “the Service cannot rely solely on an unenforceable promise as a basis to delist a species.”

As a result of the decision, Endangered Species Act protections were reinstated immediately and wolves are now back under federal management in Wyoming.  That’s where they belong, until Wyoming gets it right and develops an enforceable plan that will maintain a healthy population of wolves. Under the state’s now-rejected plan Wyoming was required to maintain just 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation.  Wolves could be killed by virtually any means anytime without a license in over eighty percent of the state – the so-called “predator zone.”  In the rest of Wyoming  around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, wolves could be hunted as “trophy game.”   Since the loss of protections in 2012, over 200 wolves have been killed under state management.

But today, wolves are protected once again in Wyoming, and that is good news indeed.  Wolves are a key part of the fabric that makes Greater Yellowstone such a special and unique place, and they deserved to be treated as the majestic creatures they are.

Bonnie Rice

Senior Representative, Our Wild America campaign  – Bozeman, MT

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Federal agencies fail grizzlies once again in the Upper Green

National Park Service

National Park Service

For the third time in five years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has increased the ‘incidental take,’ or the number of grizzly bears they anticipate will be killed, as a result of conflicts with livestock in the Upper Green area of the Bridger Teton National Forest in northwest Wyoming. The Upper Green has the highest number of conflicts in the entire Greater Yellowstone region, yet the agency has once again failed to require any meaningful measures to reduce those conflicts with livestock being grazed on public land. At least fifteen grizzly bears have been intentionally killed in the Upper Green because of conflicts with livestock since 2010.

Because Yellowstone grizzlies are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), any federal action that could jeopardize the continued existence of the species and/or its habitat must be evaluated. If it is determined that the action (in this case, livestock grazing), will not jeopardize the species but could result in ‘take’ of the species, the take must be quantified and an exemption from the Act is granted.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly raised the number of bears that can be killed in the Upper Green while failing yet again to require measures to reduce conflicts. The title itself of the just-released decision tells the story: “Biological Opinion for the 2014 Supplement to the 2013 Supplement and 2010 Amendment to the 1999 Biological Assessment for Livestock Grazing on the Northern Portions of the Pinedale Ranger District.” In 2011, the incidental take limit of six bears was exceeded the following year, even though the term of the take statement was 10 years, through 2020. In 2013, a new take statement upped the take to 11 bears, which was supposed to be through 2017, but by earlier this month, six grizzlies had already been killed. And now in 2014, the agency has allowed another 11 bears to be killed in the next three years. According to the agencies, the Yellowstone grizzly population is ‘recovered,’ (though it remains on the Endangered Species List), and the Upper Green grizzlies are viewed as ‘extra’ bears.

Sierra Club and several other non-governmental organizations are pushing the agencies for more requirements to actually reduce conflicts, instead of ignoring the problem and simply raising the take. The Forest Service, as the agency that grants grazing permits on the lands the agency manages, has the authority to require livestock producers to do more to reduce conflicts. So does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the ultimate authority over species protected under the ESA.  The only meaningful measure in recent years that has been required, night penning of sheep, has been effective in reducing conflicts when done correctly. Now, however nearly all the conflicts are with cattle, and nothing further is being required, or even attempted, by either agency to resolve conflicts between grizzlies and cattle.

Though every situation and landscape is unique, conflict reduction measures have been proven to work elsewhere. Altering grazing patterns, having more riders with livestock, use of guard dogs and other methods have been effective. Federal agencies and the producers who graze their cattle on public lands in the Upper Green should be actively working to find solutions instead of ignoring the problem and killing more bears, particularly a threatened species trying to survive on public lands. The Upper Green has more conflicts than anywhere else in Greater Yellowstone. This is where solutions are needed most. But unfortunately for grizzly bears, federal agencies have once again bowed to political pressure and increased the number of grizzly bears that can be killed in the Upper Green while avoiding the hard work of finding real and lasting solutions.

- Bonnie Rice, Senior Representative Our Wild America campaign

Additional background: 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly increased livestock-related incidental take of grizzly bears in the Upper Green: 

USFWS 1999 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 5 grizzly bears; met or exceeded.

USFWS 2011 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 2011-2020: 6 grizzly bears within any 3 consecutive years; exceeded in 2012.

USFWS Amended Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, September 2012 through 2012 grazing season: 3 grizzly bears

USFWS 2013 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 2013-2017: 11 grizzly bears in any 3 consecutive years, with no more than 3 of the 11 being females; 6 bears, including 2 females, killed by August 2014. 

USFWS 2014 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 2014-2019: 11 grizzly bears in any 3 consecutive years

 

 

 

 

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Speaking Francly

by Phil Knight

Francs

Francs Peak

Francs Peak, monarch of the Absaroka Range, tops thirteen thousand feet on the high divide between the Greybull and Wood Rivers. Walking the summit ridge with Kim Wilbert and Bryce Born this month, I could cast my vision across vast, remote mountain country, some of the wildest and least known terrain in the lower 48. “Bryce, check it out! It’s a grizzly!” I pointed down the steep west slope of Francs to a brown, moving blob in the talus. “Sure enough, and she’s got a cub!” Bryce exclaimed. Just then, Kim, a little bit behind us on the ridge, peered through his spotting scope and exclaimed “Guys, I’ve got seven grizzlies!!”

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Looking down the west side of Francs Peak at grizzly bears feeding on moths

 

The bears were gathered on these steep slopes to gobble up fat army cutworm moths, one of their most important food sources. As we looked around we found grizzly scat right on the summit ridge. Gazing down at a huge boar on on a snowfield a quarter mile below us, we hoped he would stay down there.

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Kim Wilbert and Bryce Born approach the summit of Francs Peak, with Washakie Needles in the distance

We’d approached the peak from the Wood River and base camped in the gorgeous Meadow Creek Basin. Coyotes howled at us, mule deer bucks bedded down by the krummholz, a bull elk showed off his growing rack, and a nasty hail and thunder storm blasted us in the evening, giving Kim a serious pummeling as he was hanging our food. We woke at 4 AM to a full moon and more howling, and summited before 9 AM, seeking to beat the afternoon storms.

Difficult access keeps this place pretty quiet. Yet it’s not designated Wilderness, and the Shoshone National Forest has some hair brained scheme to increase off road vehicle us here. The terrain is not suited to such – it’s extremely steep and cliffy – and such a spectacular place surely deserves better than more over-priced toys spewing exhaust and tearing up trails.

It seemed early in the season for bears to be eating moths. But some of their other food sources are getting harder to find. Cutthroat trout are being devoured by invasive lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. Elk herds have diminished, partly due to predation by bears. Whitebark pines, source of nourishing pine nuts, are succumbing to the quadruple threat of blister rust, pine bark beetles, wildfire and extreme weather (avalanches and windstorms).

This is Bryce and Kims’ stomping ground, but I had not been in the South Absaroka since 1991. Since then, forests across the region have been devastated by insects and fire. In the upper Wood River, most of the spruce forests is toast – the ghost town of Kirwin is surrounded by the bleak, grey trunks of a once-thriving forest. This is some of the worst forest die off I’ve seen anywhere. It’s like a hot, evil wind has blasted the land, killing off the larger trees en masse.

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Dead spruce forest above the ghost town of Kirwin in the upper Wood River

 

Even here, far from the teaming human hordes, the impacts of industrial, petroleum-based civilization is imprinted on the land. Yet get above treeline, and it feels as wild as any place I have been. Wilderness hangs on despite our best efforts to tame everything. Bears find food and increase their numbers, even when some of their favorite foods are nearly gone. Nature is resilient, and the weeds and wilderness long will live.

As I was driving out though the gorgeous Wood River valley, a huge, dark bull moose appeared along the road, and as I stopped the car he ran right past me. His noble presence could not have offered a more dramatic contrast to the noisy, ugly oil pumpjacks lining the road. The moose jumped one fence, crossed the road behind me, jumped another, and, skirting the pumpjacks, made it to the sanctuary of the Wood River.

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Bull moose dodges pumpjacks in the lower Wood River Valley

 

The harder we press it, the more nature will respond. The question is, how will it respond? With resilience, or with diminishment? And how far can we push the resilient side of nature, before it bites back?

Phil Knight is a thirty year resident of Greater Yellowstone and a member of the delivery team for the Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone Campaign.

 

 

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Passing the Point of Nature’s Resilience?

Originally in thinking about what to write, I sat down to write a warm fuzzy holiday post. However, recent media headlines keep creeping into my mind:  “Methane Emissions Double EPA Estimates,” “CO2 at 400ppm,” “Ocean Acidification,” as well as previous posts on this site such as Phil Knight’s excellent one on the plight of one of the gems of the GYE’s subalpine ecosystem; the whitebark pine.

This deluge of dismal news is not easy for me to digest. Therefore, I am going to break from this blog’s usual animal-centric adventure with a metaphorical connection to what’s going on in the GYE.  Although, what I am about to say is definitely going on in the GYE.

I’m going to talk about the atmosphere – you know, the cleansing crisp cobalt blue we breathe deep into our lungs, while out exploring some wild corner of a mountain top. Whilst we bask in the glories of our own personal wilderness connections, we should contemplate the loss of these soul-lifting experiences with a fresh set of eyes. During these reviving experiences, if one takes time, one may also bear witness to an unfolding trauma, a dis-ease that at first glance does not cry out to the casual observer. Rather it is insidiously growing across numerous interconnected ecosystems across the globe. No system of intricate evolving parts is ever wholly stable, but a working system grows in fits and starts, trial and error, natural selection and unnatural discards. Science refers to this ability of an ecosystem to absorb and recover from upheaval as “resilience.” Thus, (a simplified example) the GYE’s forests have evolved to bounce back from fire, new and improved, rejuvenated for the better, having been conditioned by eons of fire. This symbiosis recycles nutrients released by fire and returns the released energy (in many forms) to adjust the processes of natural selection upon an evolving forest ecosystem. Science also tells us that a systems diversity of species is the lynchpin of this resilience. This malleable ability for life to thrive under change across every niche on this blue orb is truly amazing.

There is just one juggernaut of a problem with the current nutrient recycling resilience of the planet today. The planet is losing its resilience. As myriad species are winking out of existence we scramble to catalog them into neat little sterile packages. This juggernaut, this asteroid, this tectonic cataclysm is of course ourselves. All 7+ billion of us jockeying for a better position on this crashing biological locomotive, tightly gripping our modern partner in crime, unmitigated atmospheric CO2. And our exhaled resolve to continue on this speeding train is impacting us all. The logarithmically rapid rise in our society’s exhaled atmospheric CO2, (methane, nitrous oxide, CFC’s among others) is an unsustainable, physical, chemical, biological and physiological extreme comparable to a planet-wide geological cataclysm. This unmitigated CO2 release is now ubiquitous enough that science predicts it to remain as a centuries-long heating of our atmosphere. The lungs of the planet, of which countless life forms are reliant on for every breath of cell metabolism is being charred black. We are no longer witness to the extinction of just individual species, but entire concomitant ecosystems with thousands if not millions (counting microbes) of species winking out of existence in our lifetimes.

Yes, we environmentally attuned recognize these tumors on the land when we see them. We hold them up before the wider public like a radiologist holds up a lighted X-ray film and points to the cancer. Yet even in the remotest recesses of the planet there grows a cancer, the catalyst CO2, triggering myriad destructive forces all across the planet. The Great Barrier Reef, Boreal Forest, Tropical Forest, Alpine Ecosystems, Deep Ocean Currents, Arctic Ocean, African Savannah, Tundra Permafrost, Mangrove Swamps, Marine Fisheries, The Atmosphere, The Jetstream, and on and on. Every ecosystem on the planet is under severe duress due to human caused climate change. Worldwide the scientific community (IPCC, NOAA, NASA, UNEP, etc.)  is more certain of this than medicine is certain that cigarette smoke causes cancer. The planet is in the first throes of a multi-system organ failure, with tendrils of elevated CO2 acting like metastatic tumors. Eventually deforming every ecosystem on the planet into an unrecognizable shell of its former diverse glory.

So, what are we, (humanity) doing about it? As the cliff approaches, governments seem paralyzed not to pull the emergency brake on this speeding soot belching locomotive. In the absence of leadership from our elected officials on climate change, people across the country are taking action at the local level. The Sierra Club is leading thousands of dedicated activists on multiple fronts to put the brakes on the climate change train. Our Beyond Coal campaign has been instrumental in closing 150 coal plants and counting. In Idaho, Beyond Coal activists recently voiced our opinion and won a Public Utilities Commission decision against Idaho Power’s efforts to invest 130+million in dirty coal. Many other actions are being taken by thousands of people to fight climate change across the country. Fabulous and encouraging work, yes. However, I am still worried that our daunting task will result in a fatalistic attitude, slowly becoming the status quo as we witness a planetary wide ecosystem collapse. I am not saying it is time to jump train and throw up our hands in failure. Instead I am saying it is time to step back, take a second look at the possibility that our movement is trending towards complacency. I do not want the movement to wither as our remaining planetary genome is stored in some sterile test tube vault.

Bill McKibben recently wrote the following in Orion, “ After a certain point, an ongoing crisis just becomes life; when a scorched earth becomes the new normal, when people can’t remember the old climate, outrage and alarm give way to resigned acceptance.” This eco-warrior seems worried as well and seems to be warning us not to throw up our hands in defeat, just yet. When I contemplate the possibility that we will “not remember the old climate” and all of its beautiful accoutrements I am scared as hell.

My reason for writing this post is to elicit the start of a conversation, an ongoing dialog, to engage in the better understanding of our fears and hopes towards protecting one of the greatest wild places left on Earth – the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. In doing so maybe we will come to more fully understand why we work and toil under such Herculean odds as activists. After all, we have been dealt a task almost beyond human comprehension, so let us stoke the green fires that reside in us all.

I dedicate this piece to the GYE species in peril:

Grizzly bear, wolf, Canada lynx, wolverine, fisher, American marten, river otter, black footed ferret, pika, pygmy rabbit, black tailed prairie dog, N. Goshawk, boreal owl, burrowing owl, flammulated owl, sage grouse, Clarks nutcracker, three toed woodpecker, black backed woodpecker, yellow billed cuckoo, Lewis woodpecker, Baird’s sparrow, Sprague’s pipit, Whitebark pine, alpine wildflowers, and the list goes on.

 Rich Rusnak

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Mining for Moths

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As we crested a windswept 11,500’ ridge in the southeast Absarokas, one of my hiking companions Don, exclaimed, “Guys, there’s a bear!”  Sure enough, a careful look with good binoculars revealed two adult grizzly bears on a steep talus slope about a half mile away.  We tried to slip back over the ridge, but in spite of the large distance, the bears spooked and headed for the timber below their slope. As we got out onto the east side of the peak we hoped to summit that morning, we realized there were three more bears working a talus slope at 12,000’.  Again, even though we spotted the bears at great distance, the sow and two yearling cubs sensed us and fled their feast.  As we climbed further up the peak, we traversed high steep talus slopes that were covered with “moth mines” – the 5’ across, 2’deep holes that were everywhere in the talus.  This was not terrain you would choose to travel across unless you were trying to scramble up the peak.  The diggings, as well as the abundant bear dung, were evidence that we had invaded a very heavily used late summer moth site for grizzly bears. 

Since those bear sightings, I was fortunate enough to hear Dr. David Mattson talk about bears and their food sources.  Bears have lost three of their four top food sources, with moths being the only one of those top foods left. Our wonderful bear sightings demonstrate the bear’s new dependence on cutworm moths for food, and how exposed to observation this behavior makes the bears.

Dr. Mattson’s research has clearly demonstrated the importance of late summer diet to the ability of breeding sow bears to be able to produce 2 or 3 cubs, which are the numbers required for the tenuous Yellowstone bear population to maintain present numbers.  Because of the disappearance of other desirable food sources, many bears in this population now are dependent on small moths that migrate from great distances each summer to the alpine zones of the Rocky Mountains. Further, the great bears must spend all day excavating these insects on totally exposed rock slopes.

I’ve also begun to understand that current grizzly bear population modeling is likely leading to inflated estimates. One big change in the way bears are counted is that the number of reconnaissance flights has increased substantially, up to three times more flights per year!  I’ve hunted quite a little, and have always noticed the amount of wildlife one sees is directly proportional to the time spent in the field.  I would think the same would apply to aerial surveys.  When you add the fact that bears are increasingly spending more and more time on totally exposed alpine slopes to the fact that the time spent looking has tripled, it seems obvious that bear counts will rise.  Just as we saw a lot of grizzly bears on our hike this summer, more frequent flights in late summer are going to see more bears because the bears have to be out on those open slopes to find the food that will get them ready for winter. 

The other lesson from our Absaroka hike this summer is that, in the future, I will be prepared to change trip routes and plans if I spot bears trying to eke a living out of the alpine zone.  We caused at least six bears to interrupt and flee their chosen food sources by hiking and climbing on the same mountain at the same time that they were using those sites.  When I saw the moth mining zone above 12,000’, I realized that grizzly bears are presently at the extreme fringes of available food sources.  I wish we had not disturbed their industrious food gathering on that mountain side. I have said many times in the past that the ideal bear sighting is at large distance above timber line.  After our experiences this summer, I realize those sightings are not necessarily ideal for the bears.

The importance of establishing every level of protection possible for lands like where we hiked last summer is paramount.  It is at the edges of the GYE where populations of threatened species like grizzly bears need security to expand their ranges.   I will alter my recreational goals in the future to be less intrusive in these special places.

Kim Wilbert – Sierra Club member, Riverton, WY

 

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All Hail the Noble Whitebark

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by Phil Knight

Climb into the high country of the Yellowstone ecosystem, and you enter the realm of the Whitebark pine (Pinus albicans). Long-lived, slow-growing, sturdy and hardy, these iconic trees are an integral part of Greater Yellowstone’s mountain ecosystem. Unfortunately, they are now going the way of the dinosaurs. According to USGS biologist David Mattson, in 10 to 15 years the whitebark will be functionally extinct in Greater Yellowstone.

If you have eyes in your head, when you enter a Whitebark pine forest you can see the results of climate change – the needles on the Whitebark trees are a rusty red, if indeed they have any needles left at all. Look across a high elevation forest from a peak in the Absaroka or Gallatin range, and you see red everywhere. It’s like a giant industrial dragon has blasted the wildest, most remote and inaccessible regions of Greater Yellowstone with its foul breath.

Whitebarks grow only at high elevations in western North America, and are sometimes referred to as “stone pines.” These five-needle pines are often found in association with dark, pointy Subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) and are closely related to Limber pine (Pinus flexilis). The only way to reliably tell Whitebarks from Limbers is by their cones. Limbers have large, woody cones, the largest of any tree in Greater Yellowstone, while Whitebarks produce small, sticky purple cones which, when ripe, are loaded with edible pine nuts. Whitebarks grow fat and short, forming bushy growth that is often made up of several trunks. Stout trees like these tend to hold snow in drifts, helping conserve snowpack and lengthen the time it takes to melt off, thus preserving high-country snows into summer.

Whitebark pine nuts are the most important food source for grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone. This is a unique association between bears and trees, with help from squirrels and Clark’s Nutcrackers that collect and store the seeds and cones. Bears depend in a big way on these rich, fatty pine nuts to make it through hibernation.

I am baffled by how the US Fish and Wildlife Service can claim Yellowstone area grizzly bears are ready to “delist” (remove from the Endangered Species List) when their most important, widespread food source is going away.

Since the 1980s, Whitebarks (and Limbers) have been dying across the Yellowstone Ecosystem from a combination of an invasive pathogen called white pine blister rust, an epidemic of pine bark beetles, and extreme weather events. The blister rust, while not a symptom of climate change, did result from human meddling (it probably got to North America on a shipment of plants from Asia). The bark beetles, however, have invaded the Whitebark forest solely due to warming temperatures. These native insects normally cannot survive the cold winters at high elevations in the Rockies. Ironically, climate change is happening faster at higher elevations (and higher latitudes), thus allowing the beetles to attack Whitebarks that have little defense against them. The one-two punch of beetles and blister rust is delivering the death blow to these spectacular trees.

Few scientists predicted the swiftness of the demise of the whitebarks. Climate change is, if anything, stochastic in its symptoms. Attempting to predict the rate and the effects of climate change and related events is like trying to predict which way the cars on a crashing train will roll. The rapid demise of the Whitebark puts the lie to forest management “experts” who claim that human interference in forested ecosystems, mainly thinning and logging, can bring about an improvement in forest health. In truth, forest ecosystems are more complex than we can know, and the added chaos of climate change is leading to unpredictable consequences.

In the 1990s my wife and I hiked the Indian Ridge trail into the Spanish Peaks Wilderness of Montana. We walked through what may have been the most beautiful Whitebark forest we had ever seen, and called it the “Enchanted Forest.” When I backpacked that trail in 2012, the Whitebark forest was unrecognizeable. All the trees were dead and most had blown over, forcing trail crews to recut the trail through all the dead trunks. Elsewhere on Indian Ridge, another patch of healthy whitebarks had been destroyed by a recent avalanche. Extreme weather events like windstorms, avalanches and severe wildfire are also taking out whitebarks, which grow so slowly that, even were they to grow back, it could take a century to replace a ruined forest. I did, amazingly, find some healthy patches of Whitebark high on Indian Ridge, loaded with sticky purple cones and that, of course, is where I found fresh bear tracks on the trail.

Forest destruction like that I saw on Indian Ridge is shocking and produces a visceral reaction in me. It’s like witnessing the loss of something you never knew how much you loved until it was gone. It’s also an in-your-face display of the power of human-induced climate change, a process that is ramping up as we draw well past the 400 ppm mark of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere.

Trees, bears, squirrels, birds, humans…which will be the next to face the abyss of extinction? Or can we, the only species with power to decide, amend our wasteful ways for the sake of all?

Phil Knight is a long time Sierra Club member and local organizer, conservationist, guide, naturalist and author of two books about traveling and living in the backcountry.

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Yellowstone Grizzlies Must Be Fully Recovered Before Federal Protections Are Removed

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Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Last week I attended the biannual meeting of the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee (YES) of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. YES is comprised primarily of representatives from federal and state agencies charged with grizzly bear recovery and management. This was a pivotal meeting, as the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team revealed results of its long-awaited analysis of grizzly bear foods. The Study Team began the analysis nearly two years ago after a court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had not adequately justified its conclusion that the steep decline of whitebark pine throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem would not adversely affect the survival of the grizzly bear, when the agency removed the Yellowstone grizzly from the Endangered Species List.

Over the past 18 months, the Study Team has conducted research to determine what foods grizzlies may be substituting for whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout (two of four major grizzly foods rich in protein that have steeply declined in the past decade), and how the bears are faring. A key question is whether those alternative foods pack the same kind of calories and nutrition that the bears need to maintain healthy reproductive and survival rates. The Study Team’s preliminary conclusions are that grizzlies are finding comparable foods and that the leveling off of the growth rate over the past decade is not so much due to the decline of whitebark pine, but rather because we’ve reached the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for grizzly bears.[1] Based on these preliminary findings, federal agencies are gearing up to again propose removing federal protections from Yellowstone grizzly bears.

If bears are indeed doing fine, that’s good news. However, the Study Team’s results are preliminary — much of the research is still being reviewed by other scientists – and significant questions about the status and trends of the Yellowstone grizzly population have not yet been answered. Last summer, research by Dan Doak and Kerry Cutler[2] raised serious questions about the federal government’s grizzly population estimates and asserted that the population may actually be in decline. Federal agencies dispute this, but have not released the data that their (higher) population estimates are based on, so their conclusions of a healthy grizzly population cannot be independently verified. Also, a key study that looks at where alternative foods are located has not yet been completed by the Study Team as part of its analysis. Whitebark pine lives at high elevations that keep bears away from people; switching to other foods – whether elk killed by hunters, or backyard bird feeders — could bring bears into closer proximity to humans, resulting in a much higher risk of conflicts and mortalities. There may be substitute foods, but if grizzlies die at a higher rate when trying to utilize those foods, that’s important to know.

Additionally, in its analysis the Study Team saw a decline in the percent of body fat for females, which directly affects reproductive capacity, from 2007-2010. This result could be the result of the study’s small sample size; as the Study Team notes “ Clearly, additional research is required to ascertain if this downward trend is in fact real….”[3] , but it adds to the uncertainty about trends in the grizzly population and the need for taking a closer look.

One of the biggest issues that must be resolved, in order for the Yellowstone grizzly population to be fully recovered, is the geographic isolation of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. At the YES meeting government scientists confirmed that there has been no genetic exchange between Yellowstone grizzlies and any other grizzly bear population. Think of an island of 500-600 people that never has any new migrants: it doesn’t bode well for the long-term health of the population. It’s the same with bears. Right now, the government’s plan to get around this problem is to truck in a bear every 10 years or so from another grizzly population to Yellowstone. Such ‘solutions’ are not true recovery.  Natural connectivity must be established between Yellowstone and other populations, like Northern Continental Divide grizzlies, and habitat protections must be extended outside the current core area to include these linkage zones.

Despite this list of uncertainties and lack of connectivity between populations, the majority of YES members voted to conditionally approve the Study Team’s conclusions (provided no substantive issues come up in the scientific review of its analysis that is currently underway) and thus begin the process of once again removing Endangered Species Act protections from the Yellowstone grizzly.

Sierra Club believes the risk of removing federal protections for the Yellowstone grizzly is too great at this time. There must be a higher degree of confidence in the actual status and trends of the grizzly population. There must be a greater understanding of where alternative foods are, and what the increased risk is to grizzlies attempting to utilize these foods. The Yellowstone population needs to be connected naturally to other populations in order to ensure the long-term genetic health of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem. And habitat protections must be extended to areas critical to grizzlies’ ability to find food and mates in an ecosystem that is being significantly affected by climate change, development, and other factors.

Misguided decisions and the premature removal of endangered species protections could quickly have a severe impact on grizzly bears, undoing decades of recovery efforts. Grizzlies are the 2nd slowest reproducing mammal in North America – females are typically at least 5 years of age before they reproduce; they only have litters once every 3 years, and generally a litter is 1 to 2 cubs. So we too must move slowly. Grizzlies are the ultimate symbol of wildness and one of the animals we treasure most. Their comeback since the 1970s has been a success that we need to keep moving forward. If the Study Team is right, and the Yellowstone grizzly population is healthy and bears are able to find adequate substitute foods and thrive, then that is indeed a cause for celebration. But let’s make sure they are truly recovered before we take away the very protections that have saved them from extinction.

Bonnie Rice, Senior Representative – Greater Yellowstone

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[1] It is unclear how the IGBST is differentiating foods from carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is related to available foods; if key food sources are declining, the carrying capacity of the ecosystem is reduced.

[2] Doak, D. F. and Cutler, K. (2013), Re-evaluating evidence for past population trends and predicted dynamics of Yellowstone grizzly bears. Conservation Letters. doi: 10.1111/conl.12048

[3] Schwartz et al (2013), Body and Diet Composition of Sympatric  Black and Grizzly Bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Journal of Wildlife Management DOI: 10.1002/jwmg..633

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Of Moths and Grizzlies

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USGS photo

How does a moth from eastern Montana prairies feed grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem (GYE)?  When I think of grizzly bear foods, I tend to think of berries, carrion, trout and whitebark pine nuts, but recent research shows that equally important to GYE griz is a moth called the army cutworm moth. These moths gather in the mountains in the GYE above 9000 feet in the late summer/early fall to find food and put on fat to support the development of eggs and power them on their return to the lowlands. That is pretty strange by itself, bears weighing hundreds of pounds depending on moths that might be an ounce or less, but studies show grizzlies can eat 40,000 of these moths a day! That is 20,000 kilocalories per day or the equivalent of 62.5 fast food cheeseburgers. No wonder grizzlies intent on packing on the fat for the winter search out the swarms of these moths in the mountains.

A study just completed found that GYE army cutworm moths fly from agricultural lands spanning Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in search of food. They seek the flowers found at higher elevations later in the season when lowland flowers have withered in the heat. This justifies the energy they spend gaining 8000 plus feet in elevation and traveling hundreds of miles in some cases. The moths gather in talus slopes to hide during the day and emerge to feed and mate at night. Grizzlies seek out their hiding spots and turn over rocks to find concentration of the fat-filled bugs (up to 83% fat). Who knew a bug could hold so many calories!? The surviving adults return to the lowlands to lay eggs that lead to the emergence of caterpillars on wheat and oat crops in eastern Montana.

There are dozens of moth sites in the eastern mountain ranges of the GYE. With so many grizzly foods like whitebark pine nuts and cutthroat trout on the wane, protecting this food source becomes critical. Observations indicate that grizzlies will abandon moth sites if they encounter humans, even hikers. Some guides in GYE are already aware and avoid sites they know about, but keeping these sites available to griz will be all the more important in the coming years.

By Len Broberg

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Len has been a Montana Sierra Club member since 1995 and has served as the Chair of the Bitterroot-Mission Group and Montana Chapter executive committee. He is currently a member of the Sierra Club Greater Yellowstone Campaign’s Delivery Team and the Wildlands and Wilderness Activist Team. Len is a professor in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Montana.

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