Image credit: Aaron Villescas/Flickr
Typically, warm winters make life easier for wildlife. In Yellowstone National Park, however, a string of unusually mild winters has allowed a beetle to strip the region of whitebark pine trees—which are an essential source of protein for the park's bears.
Now, as the undernourished bears struggle to prepare for hibernation, their search for food is increasingly leading them into contact with humans, often with devastating results.
Once the beetle establishes itself, it doesn't take it long to decimate entire areas of forest. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Nuts from the whitebark pine are a favorite food of Yellowstone's bears. It provides an easy source of protein that is essential for bears bulking up for winter. Thanks to mild winters, however, an infestation of beetles has spread across the park, killing as many as 70 percent of the whitebark pine trees.
The bears are not starving, the significant decrease in whitebark pines has forced them to seek out other sources of protein. For most bears, that means meat—and whether it comes from roadkill, hunter's trophies, or a camper's cooler, it usually puts bears in contact with humans.
Mark Bruscino, a bear specialist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, commented that:
Right now every god-dang dead cow down in this country's got grizzlies on them...we've already had a couple of reports of bears on the gut piles of hunter-killed elk. Road-killed deer have bears on them.
Already, two people have been killed by bears in Yellowstone this year, the most in at least a century. Tragic as such fatal encounters are, the victims are usually the bears, which must be removed or relocated after coming into close contact with humans. This year, 22 grizzlies have died or been removed in Yellowstone.
This pales in comparison to the record 79 bear deaths recorded in 2008, which was a particularly bad year for the whitebark pine.
Image credit: xinem/Flickr
Louisa Wilcox, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, explained that "every year is now a bad year for whitebark pine...we can expect more conflicts and we are getting it." The best thing people can do is prepare for the inevitable confrontations—by making regular noise on trails and packing bear spray—for their own safety and the safety of the bears.
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