We couldn’t really believe that it was necessary, but a couple of months ago, we established that bears are not preying on children as a primary food source. Not even a secondary one. No, not even a little.
Now that we have that covered, it is important to recognize that bear encounters do happen. It remains rare in the same way that shark attacks, being struck by lightning, karaoke sung in tune, and winning the PowerBall are also rare. But it stands to reason, in a griz-friendly world, that bear encounters might increase. A significant factor driving that increase isn’t – despite the frequent refrain – that there is simply a bumper crop of bears. In actuality, the driving force is among the most pressing issues of our age: climate.
The animal’s very names are dramatic, aren’t they? Grizzly bear. Ursus arctos horribilis. The common and scientific names each evoke the sort of response befitting an apex predator. In fact, the largest living predator in the continental United States. The true king of the forest, and frankly, the king of wherever he (or she) decides to go. The mythology surrounding this greatest of animals is heavily rooted in pathos and fear. Consider the performance that finally scored DiCaprio his Oscar.
How much weight for this reputation rests on the nature of language and how the mind responds to it? Grizzled does not imply that these bears are the battleworn pirates of the wilderness. Horribilis doesn’t even translate to “horrible.” In fact, “grizzly” is a description of color and a primary translation for “horribilis” is “awesome.”
Imposing predators though they are, it is not nearly as romantic nor sensational to consider that oftentimes their prey is not prey at all, but plants. A bear’s diet depends very much on range, but one thing remains the same no matter where we find grizzly: they are biologically driven to consume. Of course, that seems a simple point of fact. But given the nature of their lives, specifically their need to hibernate, bears must spend the majority of their waking hours searching for and ingesting massive amounts of calories. Add to this the need for reproductive females to also protect and provide for their offspring and the importance of a reliable food source comes into sharp focus.
That, in sum, is the nexus between grizzly bear survival and climate change. What role does climate change play in the challenges a healthy grizzly population faces?
Simply put, that role revolves around food resource availability. Changes in climate produce a ripple effect in food-webs, which in turn reverberate outward to every living thing in an ecosystem. Grizzly, residing at the top of their respective food chain face myriad small changes that combine to produce a large effect, the result of which is increased encounters with people and, unfortunately, increased mortality.
Greg Gordon spent the better part of three decades as a seasonal park ranger and then a field school instructor. He’s now associate professor of environmental studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane. He explains how climate change pushes bears closer and closer to people.
“So when you think about the current range of grizzly bears, you know thinking about those in the lower 48 especially, Yellowstone, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the Bob Marshall/Glacier systems, and then the Selkirk, Yaak, sort of northwest corner of Montana, northeast corner of Washington, Idaho panhandle, as the current grizzly bear range in the lower 48. Within that range the short term climate effects that we’re currently observing, ones that are happening as we speak, are the loss of low elevation snowpack, the shift to warmer drier winters, and slightly wetter summers, the combination of that results in the loss of snowpack at the high elevations. Losing that storage capacity of that snowpack for the rivers and streams of Montana, Idaho, and Washington.”
Gordon explains the warming that brings about this early loss of snowpack causes a variety of issues for bears, perhaps most importantly is that it changes hibernation patterns. Bears hibernate at higher elevations and as the planet warms and snowpack decreases, they arise earlier in the year. Couple waking up sooner with the effects of climate change on one of the primary food sources for inland grizzly populations, the whitebark pine, and a clear picture emerges of just how those rippling effects put immense pressure on grizzly bears.
Whitebark pine is a high elevation species. In fact, its range occurs at the highest elevation of all pines. Those grizzly that share range with whitebark pine rely on them as a food source. Remaining at higher elevation helps keep bears and humans separate. “When there’s not enough whitebark pine nuts they go down to the lowlands, get into food, get into trash, encounter people, and get killed. And there’s a direct correlation between their mortality and low pine crop yields.” Pine crop yields will only decrease as the whitebark pine is an endangered species facing a wide variety of threats, chief among them being white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetle infestation, the concomitant increase in susceptibility to wildfire, and decreasing domain brought about by warming temperatures and drought.
Grizzly are a resilient and adaptable species. They do not face the same threat of habitat loss as other species with which they range. Rather, the cascading effects of climate change on their sources of food, whitebark pine in the case of inland grizzly, salmon for coastal populations, combine to place them on a trajectory where human/bear encounters will only increase. Currently, that trajectory doesn’t appear to be changing, instead, with the strong possibility the West is entering a period of drought unprecedented in recorded history, it is solidifying.
There is room for bears. Room in the intermountain West, room in the Cascades. Room along the Pacific coast. Bears aren’t ranging further for a lack of space or because there are too many of them. They are ranging further to find food as their traditional sources are under immense pressure from a changing climate. As the grizzly adapts to this new reality, society must as well and the decisions people make will determine the future of bears and their place in the West. Decreasing bear mortality at the hands of humans is a choice. It is one people are already beginning to embrace.