US judge says grizzlies still threatened

Billings, Montana (AP) – A federal judge in Montana restored
protections Monday for an estimated 600 grizzly bears in and around
Yellowstone National Park, citing in part a decline in their food
supply caused by climate change.

After bouncing back from near-extermination last century,
grizzlies were declared recovered in 2007, when they were stripped
of their threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.

But in a 46-page ruling delivered Monday, U.S. District Judge
Donald Molloy sided with environmental groups who argued the bruins
remain at risk.

Among other factors, he cited a decline in whitebark pine trees
– a key food source for many bears that has been disrupted by
climate change, forest fires and other factors.

Government researchers have made similar links, but that
research was 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 in his ruling. “These
studies still state that there is a connection between whitebark
pine and grizzly survival.”

The greater Yellowstone area of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming has
the second-largest grizzly bear population in the continental
United States. Four other populations with a combined estimated
population of 900 animals have never lost their threatened
status.

Grizzlies are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and
animals. In the Yellowstone area, the bears rely heavily on nuts
from the cones of the whitebark pine, a high-elevation tree that
has suffered a dramatic decline in recent years as warmer
temperatures let pine-killing beetles flourish.

A Fish and Wildlife spokesman declined to comment directly on
Molloy’s ruling, saying agency staff needed to review it.

“We’re going to take some time with this rule because it’s so
significant,” 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.”

Environmentalists welcomed the ruling and said it underscored
the need for government agencies to pay more heed to the potential
damage climate change can cause for at-risk animal and plant
species.

“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, a plaintiff in a separate federal lawsuit over grizzlies
in Idaho that remains pending.

In his ruling, Molloy also said state and federal conservation
plans meant to protect Yellowstone-area grizzlies into the future
were inadequate.

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