The perilous state of Yellowstone’s grizzly-bear population highlights the need for solid science in policy-making, argues Doug Honnold in this guest essay. Honnold, managing attorney of the Earthjustice Northern Rockies office, has been litigating public-interest environmental cases for more than 20 years. Some of his successful cases have led federal courts to reinstate the Clinton roadless rule, overturn the Farm Bureau’s efforts to have Yellowstone wolves killed, and reject the government’s grizzly bear recovery plan because of its lack of habitat standards.


Our ability to protect and preserve wild places like Yellowstone — indeed, our ability to protect our civilization — turns in large part on our ability to understand the amazingly complex biological and scientific dynamics at play. We can’t fight global warming or beat back avian flu or protect our families from air pollution unless we understand the science behind these issues and put it to use.

But as we’ve seen again and again through the annals of history, powerful political forces use corrupted science to support desired political results.

Witness the Bush administration’s proposal to remove the Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the list of species protected under the Endangered Species Act. By the basic standards of fundamental ecology, that should be a non-starter because of the relatively small population size and the substantial threats the bear faces.Dr. Jesse Logan has helped bring to light one significant threat to the Yellowstone grizzly. A scientist who has a bug’s eye view of the world — an entomologist — Logan turned 62 years old this year and retired from the research arm of the U.S. Forest Service. He had worked 30 years as a research scientist and entomology professor, studying the forests of the northern Rockies and the insects they house, especially the small but mighty mountain pine beetle. Strange things have been happening in our forests over the past 10 years, and Logan has been at the scientific forefront in describing what has been unfolding, analyzing its significance, and projecting what the future will bring.

In the early 1990s, Logan and his collaborators set up a research site in the White Cloud mountains near Challis, Idaho, to monitor how climate change would affect beetle activity in two different tree species in the forest, lodgepole and whitebark pine. Historically, mountain pine beetle and lodgepole pines evolved together, but mountain pine beetle had been an infrequent visitor to whitebark pine habitat. So Logan set the table to get at two urgent issues for our national forests: What happens to beetle activity under warming conditions? And, will beetles branch out and attack trees like whitebark that have traditionally been safe from infestation?

These questions have profound implications for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. When whitebark pine-seed cones — a key source of grizzly food — are abundant in the Yellowstone backcountry, bear mortalities go down and the number of bear cubs goes up. Conversely, when whitebark pine-cone production is reduced, bear/human conflicts and bear deaths increase exponentially as bears search more widely for food to survive, and cub production plummets because female bears can’t gain the fat reserves to produce cubs or large litters.

During the last decade, the northern Rockies have experienced higher than normal temperatures, almost certainly triggered by human activity. According to Logan’s research data, accumulated by the summer of 2003, those warm temperatures led to a significant mountain pine beetle infestation in lodgepole pine, and, more ominously, to the beetles attacking and killing numerous whitebark pines. Just a few degrees of increased temperature allows the beetles to change from a maladaptive two-year reproductive cycle to an adaptive one-year life cycle.

The implications of this work are staggering: the western forests as we know them today will undergo radical changes. As Logan wrote in one of his seminal papers, “We will probably experience ecological catastrophes such as the loss of high-elevation five-needle pines long before we are paddling sea kayaks in Central Park.”

Over the last five years, bark-beetle infestations have intensified throughout the western forests. In British Columbia, a massive, unprecedented bark-beetle infestation is unfolding: about 25 million acres have been afflicted, more than 11 times the size of Yellowstone Park. In Yellowstone itself, an estimated 9 percent of the whitebark pines — 18,000 acres — were killed by the end of 2004 in this still ongoing epidemic. Foresters, entomologists, and ecologists are worried. Very worried.

Using the best data available, Logan has modeled what will happen to whitebark pine in the Yellowstone ecosystem with just a few degrees of warmer weather. His most recent work projects that in 20 to 30 years, “whitebark pine could well be eliminated, along with the ecosystems it builds, as a dominant force on the landscape.”

We may already be seeing a reduction in the bear population due to the loss of whitebark pine — using what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls the “best scientific” method for estimating the Yellowstone grizzly-bear population, the annual population estimate was only 350 bears in 2005, down from nearly 600 bears in 2004.

How can the FWS justify its proposal to delist Yellowstone grizzlies even as their population appears to be declining and a major source of their food is under unprecedented threat? Well, for starters, they rely on 10-year-old mountain pine beetle data and ignore the most recent data. Then there is the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” defense: instead of counting the number of whitebark pine killed in recent years, the government studies the number of seed cones produced on living whitebark pine trees. When a tree in their sample is killed, they just exclude it from the study.

Making policy decisions based on this sort of weak science has become all too common. A survey of FWS scientists released in February 2005 illustrated how pervasive the suppression and tainting of science has become. Remarkably, 414 scientists responded to the survey, despite official direction not to do so. The results were staggering: 42 percent of the scientists said they could not openly express concerns about the needs of a species outside the agency for “fear of retaliation”; 56 percent reported cases where “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention”; and 71 percent said that FWS cannot be trusted to protect endangered species.

Wrote one survey respondent, a scientist from the Pacific region, “All we can do at the field level is ensure that our administrative record is complete and hope we get sued by an environmental or conservation organization.”  

Indeed, as Logan’s warnings about the loss of whitebark pine have so far fallen on deaf ears, it seems likely that it will take an Earthjustice lawsuit to make FWS face the facts that our forests and the grizzlies and other wildlife they support are under threat and that we need a game plan for addressing that challenge.

No amount of spin, political interference, think-tank obfuscation, or ginned up “science on demand” can keep bark beetles from increasing their reproductive rates in response to rising temperatures. When people like Jesse Logan dedicate their lives to developing science that is critical to the debate about environmental health and public welfare, we need to stand with them and ensure that their scientific work is put to good use, not ignored or buried.