Grizzly Bears and Whitebark Pine Ecology

By SARAH ROY

 
Group picture from the top of the butte (about 7100 ft!)

Group picture from the top of the butte (about 7100 ft!)

 

For the past few days, the students have been focusing on grizzly bear ecology. Everything from where they live, to what they eat, to how their bodies react physiologically while in hibernation. After spending some classroom time on the background of this species, we took a hike up Red Butte to get a firsthand view of prime grizzly bear habitat in the Swan Valley. The hike was a little strenuous, but I think we would all agree that it was well worth the effort…

Once we took a healthy moment to soak in the beauty, we got back to work. Staff members Luke Lamar and Sara Halm helped students orient themselves on the map by utilizing mountain peaks that were in clear view from our location. Students were taught how to triangulate their location manually using a compass and a pencil to draw angles on the map. Who needs a GPS now? We’re firm believers that all of the technology in the world cannot substitute raw knowledge!

Staff members Luke Lamar assisting students Kaleb Juntunen and Sofia Fall with their map reading skills

Staff members Luke Lamar assisting students Kaleb Juntunen and Sofia Fall with their map reading skills

After the map reading exercise, instructor Adam Lieberg took small groups of students to look at one of the biggest issues occurring in the world of trees here in the western U.S. (because plants are important too!). Whitebark pine has long been an important food source for grizzly bears, but is currently in drastic decline due to a fatal fungal infection called Blister rust. Blister rust was first brought over from Europe through seedlings that were infected with the pathogen. Because our North American trees were not adapted to this fungus, it was able to spread. Today blister rust affects all of North America’s 5 needle pine species, and has caused a severe decline in both the western white pine and the whitebark pine.

Young whitebark pine infected with blister rust

Young whitebark pine infected with blister rust

So why does this matter? And what does it have to do with grizzly bears? As it turns out, the seed cones of the whitebark pine are extremely rich in protein, fats, and carbohydrates. All the things a grizzly bear needs to grow healthy and strong, all packed into one food source. Since the introduction of blister rust, the whitebark pine has declined up to 80% in some areas where it was once common. This decline is problematic because it takes away from grizzly bears’ fall food source. While Grizzlies are generalists in their dietary behaviors, many researchers believe this lack of food source may cause grizzlies to look elsewhere for food; potentially in places like human garbage cans. In order to prevent more grizzly bear and human conflict, they need stable food sources in the wild such as the whitebark pine seed cones. A quote comes to mind from John Muir that seems to summarize this ecological lesson:
 

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.