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Influence of whitebark pine decline on fall habitat use and movements of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

May 1, 2014

When abundant, seeds of the high-elevation whitebark pine (WBP; Pinus albicaulis) are an important fall food for grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Rates of bear mortality and bear/human conflicts have been inversely associated with WBP productivity. Recently, mountain pine beetles (Dendroctonus ponderosae) have killed many cone-producing WBP trees. We used fall (15 August–30 September) Global Positioning System locations from 89 bear years to investigate temporal changes in habitat use and movements during 2000–2011. We calculated Manly–Chesson (MC) indices for selectivity of WBP habitat and secure habitat (≥500 m from roads and human developments), determined dates of WBP use, and documented net daily movement distances and activity radii. To evaluate temporal trends, we used regression, model selection, and candidate model sets consisting of annual WBP production, sex, and year. One-third of sampled grizzly bears had fall ranges with little or no mapped WBP habitat. Most other bears (72%) had a MC index above 0.5, indicating selection for WBP habitats. From 2000 to 2011, mean MC index decreased and median date of WBP use shifted about 1 week later. We detected no trends in movement indices over time. Outside of national parks, there was no correlation between the MC indices for WBP habitat and secure habitat, and most bears (78%) selected for secure habitat. Nonetheless, mean MC index for secure habitat decreased over the study period during years of good WBP productivity. The wide diet breadth and foraging plasticity of grizzly bears likely allowed them to adjust to declining WBP. Bears reduced use of WBP stands without increasing movement rates, suggesting they obtained alternative fall foods within their local surroundings. However, the reduction in mortality risk historically associated with use of secure, high-elevation WBP habitat may be diminishing for bears residing in multiple-use areas.