John and Frank Craighead, two biologist twin brothers, whose ground-breaking work with radio telemetry revolutionized wildlife management, were leaders of the wildland preservation movement. Their grizzly bear research revealed that the bears inside Yellowstone National Park depended on habitat far beyond its borders.
Frank first identified the area we now call the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The two men took on the federal government in the 1960s and 1970s when the National Park Service decided to close all of the dumps inside the park and to put in place sanitation policies aimed to force bears to rely on natural foods.
The avid whitewater rafters also challenged the Bureau of Reclamation’s plans to dam the Teton River in eastern Idaho. For their advocacy they had their taxes audited, their reputations challenged and their research on bears ended in Yellowstone.
The fundamental debate has never really died. Making the bears go cold turkey on garbage led rangers to kill dozens of grizzlies. Many believe that is why their numbers were so low when they were listed as a threatened species in 1975.
But grizzly bear numbers recovered as the opportunistic creatures learned to thrive on natural foods available throughout the ecosystem. Their numbers had risen enough by 2007 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed them from the threatened species list.
But grizzly bear advocates said the government had acted too quickly. Too many bears were killed in years like this one when the natural foods they need, especially whitebark pine nuts, are unavailable.
Climate change has allowed mountain pine beetles to survive at the higher elevations where whitebark pine grow. They are killing many of the trees that supply the nuts that squirrels gather and bears steal in the late summer and fall.
This means, says Natural Resources Defense Council grizzly expert Louisa Willcox, that every year now is a bad crop year for whitebark pine and therefore a hard year for bears.
She and others convinced a federal judge to reverse the federal delisting and bears are back on the threatened list. The Obama administration has appealed the decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The impact of climate change on whitebark pine is all but irreversible.
Perhaps through replanting or wise use of fire we can restore the trees over time. But the fact is the trees probably don’t belong in the ecosystem that the new climate conditions will create.
So the question is can the bear survive in that ecosystem? Remember, people live there and are encroaching on the private lands of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in ever growing numbers.
We can manage this growth but we cannot stop it, experts say. That brings me back to Frank Craighead
He argued in the 1980s that most healthy bear populations in the world have an annual source for feasting such as salmon spawning streams. These “ecocenters” as he called them, allow them to put on the weight necessary to get them through hibernation, even in poor crop years.
He called for developing artificial, backcountry ecocenters in Yellowstone. His idea was to use the large elk population present then as the source for bear nutrition.
There were all sorts of good reasons not to go that direction in the 1980s. Bears already were feeding on dead elk in the spring left by hunters when they crossed back into the park from its northern boundary.
The recovered cutthroat population in Yellowstone Lake was providing much of the same food source as salmon elsewhere. Without ecocenters, the bear discovered alternative food sources like army cutworms they might not have found.
But now the reintroduced wolves have reduced the surplus of elk in the ecosystem and illegally introduced lake trout have cropped the cutthroat runs. Bears are foraging farther from the core and getting into trouble with people.
Craighead’s idea of supplemental feeding of grizzly bears will be hard to dismiss in the face of the reality of climate change. It is the kind of extraordinary management that may be necessary for the survival of many species as their habitat moves or disappears.
But like so much with climate change it will force many people to challenge their fundamental beliefs about man and nature.