Judge Orders Yellowstone Grizzlies Back on Endangered List

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009; 5:11 PM

A federal judge in Montana has ordered the Interior Department to place nearly 600 grizzly bears in and near Yellowstone National Park back on the endangered species list, on the grounds that their food supply is shrinking due to climate change.

Yellowstone's grizzly bears, which once faced extinction but grew in number and lost their federal protection in 2007, have suffered rising mortality rates recently as pine beetles have ravaged the whitebark pine they depend on for sustenance.

Judge Donald Molloy wrote that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to remove the bears' threatened status failed to take scientific studies into account that make a connection between the trees' decline and the deaths of grizzlies in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Last year 48 grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem died, the highest annual mortality count since the bears were put on the list in 1975.

"There is a disconnect between the studies the agency relies on here and its conclusions," Molloy wrote. "These studies still state that there is a connection between whitebark pine and grizzly survival."

The whitebark pine is a higher-elevation tree that has suffered major die-offs and since the grizzly bears depend on the nuts from its cones as a major food source, they been venturing to lower elevations, where they sometimes come into conflict with humans.

Doug Honnold, the managing attorney in Earthjustice's Bozeman office and one of the lawyers who appealed Interior's decision, said the court ruling shows the federal government had underestimated global warming's impact on this isolated population of bears.

"There's a tremendous sense of relief that the charade of grizzly bear recovery has been halted," Honnold said. "The carrying capacity of the ecosystem is being radically depleted because of the loss of this key food source."

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Matt Kales said Monday the agency is reviewing the order, and cannot comment on its substance because "this is an active litigation issue."

The Center for Biological Diversity's conservation advocate Michael Robinson said the ruling has larger implications for endangered and threatened species, showing "climate change is indeed a threat to their future."

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