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Study probes impact of pine decline on bears

Study probes impact of pine decline on bears

Aug 10, 2012 - The Associated Press

POWELL -- The fate of diseased whitebark pine will play a part in the effort to remove grizzly bears from the endangered species list.

A federal appeals court ruled last year that more data was necessary to explain the decline of whitebark and how that decline will affect the grizzly population before delisting can be achieved.

Whitebark pine cones yield nutritious nuts grizzlies devour prior to denning. Even without pine beetles killing them, the trees don't yield nuts every year.

Shoshone National Forest totals 2.4 million acres, including approximately 217,000 acres of whitebark pine. A 2011 aerial survey showed approximately 80,000 acres were impacted by mountain pine beetle. By including surveys from previous years, it is estimated between 60 to 80 percent of the mature whitebark pine have been impacted by the beetles.

"They identify trees impacted by looking for red-needled trees, which indicate the tree is dying or dead," said Joe Harper, wildlife biologist for Shoshone National Forest.

Separate, smaller surveys of whitebark pine cones are conducted on the ground every summer at 22 transect lines in the six divisions of the national forest of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and the findings reported to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. The surveys help the team and forest managers understand the extent of beetle-caused whitebark mortality in the ecosystem, Harper said.

Shoshone has two transect sites of 10 trees each in Sunlight Basin and near Cooke City, Mont. Shoshone personnel have been surveying whitebark at those sites -- Sunlight and Republic Creek -- since 1980.

Grizzlies will do fine without whitebark, said Mark Bruscino, statewide supervisor of the large carnivore management section of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

"The whitebark issue that we are going to resolve in the new delisting rule will not have much of an effect on the grizzly bear conservation strategy or Wyoming's state plan," Bruscino said during a phone interview on July 26.

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