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PAHASKA, Wyo. —Two miles east of Yellowstone National Park and just across the boundary designating the North Absaroka Wilderness, Chuck Neal pulls out his knife and kneels on the rocky soil.

He's focused on a small crop of biscuit root scattered across the south-facing slope. Judging by the plant's browning leaves and its slender stem, it looks to be well past its seasonal prime.

"This is the principal root crop of the spring months," Neal said, producing a small tuber no larger than an ear of baby corn. "You'll see the bears up here in May and early April. You'll see grizzlies digging for this on either side of the valley."

Neal, a nationally known ecologist and author of "Grizzlies in the Mist," has studied the grizzly for nearly 40 years, standing his ground against bluff charges and sweating out close encounters. He led a hike into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem recently to share his knowledge of the bear's history, its behavior and foraging habits.

While some are advocating for the grizzly's delisting as an endangered species, Neal says it's too soon to take that step. He believes the animal still faces too many unresolved threats.

"They're very adaptable and very intelligent creatures," Neal said. "They can adapt to nearly anything if we give them room. The problem is, generally, we don't permit them that luxury. We want them to stay where we want them to stay, but the bear has got to make a living."

Bear food

Here on the side of the mountain near the Wyoming-Montana border, Neal digs up various tubers, including biscuit root and common yampa.

Up the trail, he stops at the chokecherry stands, patches of Oregon grape and clover. He notes the foods grizzlies turn to at different times of the year and says the bears have been here as recently as May.

"They've been actively digging this area," Neal said, stopping in a field pocked by shallow holes. "You can see where he pulled up the roots of some of the plants. Some people say they envision enormous excavations, but when digging for biscuit root, it's not necessary."

The odds of seeing a grizzly at this time of year and at this elevation, somewhere around 8,000 feet, are slim. Neal said the bears are well above tree line right now, turning over rocks in search of protein-rich cutworm moths.

A grizzly will eat nearly 30,000 moths in a day, packing on several hundred pounds as winter draws near and foods grow scarce, including the grizzly's longtime staple, the whitebark pine.

"When they come off the moth fields, nearly all the bears should be in the whitebark pine groves," Neal said. "The pine nuts are high in protein and fat, but our pine groves are dying, and the bears will have to look for something else."

Climate change

Concerned about the effects climate change and disease are having on whitebark pine, members of the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee have developed a new strategy for protecting the tree from continued declines.

Announced in May, the new effort sets management goals for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, along with the six national forests in three states that make up the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in three states.

Neal believes the committee's management strategy is a good place to start. But he also believes that whitebark pine has already been rendered ecologically irrelevant across much of the landscape, and will remain so over the next century.

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"The bears aren't going to waste any time looking for whitebark pine because it's not there anymore," Neal said, stepping over a small stream before heading up the mountain. "The bears will probably look for something else this fall, and it'll probably be something lower down, and that's generally when they run into people."

Without the whitebark pine, Neal says, the bears will rely more on clover. In lean years, Neal says, he has seen grizzlies forage on what few tubers remain, along with clover, a high-protein food.

The grizzly's shifting food source adds to the challenges facing the bear, which neared extinction before it was classified as an endangered species in 1975.

Neal said the bears will continue to face long-term difficulties without increased human tolerance, along with a shift in the political climate and the management strategies that result.

"If we permit grizzlies the room to forage for other things, they'll find a way," Neal said. "But if we continue to make demands on the ecosystem and say the bears will have to make a living somewhere else, then we'll end up killing more bears."

Politics vs. biology

Poised halfway up the valley in a patch of shade, Neal broaches the political hot potato that remains: the delisting of the grizzly. While politics may trump science in the end, he says, biologically the bear is far from recovered.

While an estimated 600 grizzlies live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, they exist in an island. They're hemmed in by cities and roads, with no way of connecting with other bears in other habitats.

"Yellowstone is an island ecosystem — it's cut off from any other bear population," Neal said. "There aren't any genetic exchanges going on, and unless something changes, there never will be."

Some have suggestions that a few grizzlies could be transported every few years from other habitats farther north. Supporters of this concept believe that doing so would help bolster Yellowstone's grizzlies by introducing new genes into the population.

Over time, the effort could protect the animals from the perils of prolonged inbreeding, diversifying the population and making it resistant to disease.

But Neal doesn't buy it.

"That in itself is a de facto admission that we don't have a recovered population," Neal said. "A recovered population is a fully viable, self-sustaining population, which the agencies recognize we don't have."

Neal fears that the bear will be denied the thing it needs the most — the ability to expand its territory and connect with other breeding populations in the Northern Rockies.

"That's going to guarantee that recovery never takes place," Neal said. "It will always be a highly intrusive operation. At least that's my view as a biologist."

 

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Contact Martin Kidston at mkidston@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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