In the Bear’s House is a collection of poems, stories, and essays that explore various aspects of the central and iconic role that Bear plays in Momaday’s culture, a culture that is shared to a considerable degree by all who love and value wilderness. Among these latter would be not only Aldo Leopold but even his cowboys, people for whom, however present the bear was in their physical world, it was far more so in their psychic one. While Momaday’s Bear, who ponders his own nature and discusses it with his creator, represents more of that culture than his real life counterpart can, that nature is built on creeks full of fish and sleeping under the snow and the lusty enjoyment of berries. The composite that gradually emerges, of real and imagined traits, reveals much about both culture and creature; the braid that is the culture would be fundamentally different without the strand that is the Bear.

Momaday’s and Leopold’s bear is the grizzly, the North American version of the brown bear. Easily distinguished from the smaller black bear by its size (up to eight feet and 800 pounds) and the hump over its shoulders, the grizzly was once distributed throughout the western U.S. and onto the Plains in numbers that may have reached 100,000 in the lower 48 states. A century later they had been eliminated from 98% of that land, their numbers down to 1000 or fewer, though much larger numbers persist in parts of Canada and Alaska.

Their rivals are easy to guess: logging and mining interests, roads and rails that carve up habitat, the sprouting of towns, trapping and hunting (much of it illegal). Some grizzlies are mistaken for black bears, which can be legally hunted. Some wander into residential areas, attracted by garbage dumps, pet food, bird feeders; human safety tends to hold sway. Leopold’s Bigfoot was taken out by a government agent concerned about that one cow per year. As he wrote, “The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows. He did not know he had toppled the spire off an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together.”1

By 1975 the number of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), one of the major grizzly populations in the lower 48 states, had dropped to the frighteningly low number of 136, and the population was listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. There it remained and received certain protections until 2007 when, with its numbers up to approximately 700 grizzlies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decided it had recovered. But by then a new threat was looming, one that would eliminate a major food source for many of the bears.

In areas such as the GYE, where there is no salmon and few berries, the major late summer and fall food for grizzlies has long been the whitebark pine nut. This high calorie food has enabled grizzlies to bulk up before heading into hibernation, often making the difference in whether they survive the winter and whether the females produce cubs. Bears and pine nuts have evolved as part of a unique community that also includes the Clark’s nutcracker and the red squirrel. Whitebark pine cones do not open to release their seeds like other cones, and must be torn apart by the nutcrackers, who then store the seeds in underground caches, effectively planting new trees. A single nutcracker may hide as many as 100,000 seeds in one year. Squirrels also harvest the cones, which they store in piles under the trees, which grizzlies then raid, along with the nutcracker caches. Thus has it been for many thousands of years.

The whitebark pine forest was first attacked by blister rust, a disease caused by a fungus that kills branches and stops cone production. Introduced over a century ago on white pine seedlings imported from Europe, it spreads slowly but inexorably, and by 2010 the infection rates in many forests were as high as 100% (the enormous Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, for instance, was 83% infected2), leaving nothing but gray “ghost forests” in some areas.

Then came the pine beetles. Pine beetles have been in the forests for many years, but until very recently did not pose a serious threat to the whitebark because the tree lives at such high elevations that the climate was too harsh for the beetles to thrive there. But the warming climate, whose effects are exaggerated at high altitudes, has enabled all stages of the beetle’s life cycle to survive the winter, including the adults, which used to be killed by the deep cold; and while this cycle previously took two years to complete, it now can be completed in only one. The result has been a plague of beetles, with no likely decline.

And there is a third contributor to the problem: the many decades of fire suppression that have eliminated the open environment in which whitebark pine thrives, and replaced it with dense stands of more shade-tolerant trees, such as spruce and fir. In the face of this one-two-three punch, entire whitebark forests are now facing ecological collapse.

It is not only the bears who may fall victim to this situation. Whitebark pine is a critically important part of the subalpine ecosystem for a number of reasons. The tree is the first to grow at the higher altitudes, where it creates the environment that will eventually welcome other species. As the first tree to take root after fire or avalanche, it holds onto the soil that will be needed by every subsequent colonizer. Its shade helps the snow persist long into the summer, preventing spring floods and summer droughts, and providing the reliable stream flows needed by fish. And in addition to the nutrients it provides, it meets additional needs of other species, such as providing elk with shade and protection from predators during the vulnerable time of year when calves are being born.

The alterations that climate change is bringing to the whitebark’s range may well shrink its viable habitat to less than 25% of what it currently enjoys within the next 75 years.3 In such cases, trees rely on birds to carry their seeds far enough into more hospitable territory to enable the trees to recolonize new lands relatively quickly. The Clark’s nutcracker, for instance, carries the heavy pine nuts up to 32 kilometers (20 miles) away to cache them. But the absence of sufficient numbers of trees to attract the nutcrackers means that they will be plying their trade elsewhere, leaving the whitebark pine to its fate – as well, perhaps, as the bears that depend on it.

There is a strong link between the size of the pine seed crop and the number of cubs born during the following winter. Female bears consume roughly twice as many seeds as males, and in good crop years they reproduce at an earlier age and more frequently, and have more 3-cub litters.4 In poor crop years, grizzly mortality increases roughly threefold.5

The remote location of the pine nut crop has been a boon to grizzlies in another way: it has kept them far from human populations and out of the human-bear conflicts that are so deadly to the bears. Without their usual source of high-elevation food, bears are forced to seek out other sources, which more often than not bring them into increased contact with humans. They have gone after dead livestock, road kill, piles of entrails left by hunters, parked cars containing food. This has inevitably led in recent years to higher numbers of bear deaths, and in a few cases human deaths.

In 2009 a federal court, rejecting FWS’s claim that the loss of the whitebarks would not impede the bears’ survival, reversed the 2007 decision and reinstated them to Threatened status. In subsequent years grizzly habitat has expanded and their numbers have stabilized, bringing another delisting proposal in 2016. In the meantime, FWS declared whitebark pine itself to be a priority candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Lack of funds to carry out the necessary work, however, prevented the listing from occurring. In the years since 2009, over 95% of the large whitebark pines in the GYE have succumbed to pine beetles.6 Given that the oldest trees are well over a thousand years old, seeing them wiped out practically overnight seems especially tragic.

But intervention can take many forms. The US Forest Service developed a Whitebark Pine Restoration Program in 2006 which, together with additional funding from many state and private agencies, foundations, and universities, has funded hundreds of proposals by a variety of organizations to identify beetle-resistant trees, collect their cones, and plant seedlings, among other approaches. These are small-scale projects, and given the whitebark’s very slow growth rate, this is a long-term effort. But that same slow growth is an advantage in another respect: young trees, too small to be targeted by the beetles, are escaping the damage, and may continue to do so for many years while other solutions are explored.

We cannot undo the changes to the climate that have already occurred, nor remove those that are in the climate pipeline because of what we have already done. We will not return to the climate that beat back the pine beetles every winter. The genie cannot be put back into the bottle. But with the widespread awareness of the problem that we are beginning to see now, and sufficient resources dedicated to finding a way to contain the damage, perhaps we can prevent the spire from being toppled from the edifice of our great Western wildlands.

1 Leopold, Aldo. "Escudilla." A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 136

2 Federal Register, 75(138): July 20, 2010. Proposed Rules.

3 Six, Diana. "Mountain Pine Beetles Expansion in the West.” American Forests. https://www.americanforests.org/our-programs/endangered-western-forests/mountain-pine-beetles-expansion-in-the-west/ Accessed 8 May 2016.

4 Reinhart DP, Haroldson MA, Mattson DJ, & Gunther KA. "Effects of exotic species on Yellowstone's grizzly bears." Western North American Naturalist, 2001: 61(3) pp. 277-288.

5 Logan JA, Macfarlane WW, & Willcox L. "Whitebark pine vulnerability to climate-driven mountain pine beetle disturbance in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem." Ecological Applications, June 2010: 20(4), pp. 895-902.

6 Fischer, Douglas. "Yellowstone’s iconic high mountain pines dying by beetle’s mouth." Scientific American, 8 Oct 2014. Online. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/yellowstone-s-iconic-high-mountain-pines-dying-by-beetle-s-mouth/ Accessed 8 May 2016.