A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region need continued protection under the Endangered Species Act due to the decline of a tree species that serves as a key food source.
The ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocks the federal government’s effort to lift protections on about 600 threatened grizzlies across 19,000 square miles of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Such a move would have turned over management of the animals to state wildlife agencies.
But the judges said a significant threat to the bears’ recovery has emerged in recent years with the decline in whitebark pine trees. Whitebark pine nuts are a key food source for some bears, and beetle infestations have devastated huge stands of the trees at high elevations across the region.
After a Montana judge said the tree’s decline posed a threat to the grizzly population, biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued in the appeal to the 9th Circuit that grizzlies could adapt and find other food sources. Members of the three-judge appellant panel disagreed, saying they were unconvinced that protections could be restored at a later date if the bears’ recovery falters.
Fish and Wildlife is reviewing the ruling.
When grizzlies were given Endangered Species Act protections across the lower 48 states in 1975, as few as 136 bears survived in the Yellowstone region. A recovery effort led to protections being lifted in 2007. (AP)