It’s odd to think of climate change as improvement, but grizzly bear habitat may be a rare beneficiary as this new study shows.
Our planet is warming. Multiple factors are at play, including the natural cycles of Earth. Humanity is accelerating these cycles at an alarming pace, however. So to hear that a beloved bear species may benefit is off-putting, to say the least.
Yet this study, published in February by North Cascades National Park Service Complex wildlife biologists, reports exactly that. As co-author Jason Ransom cites, even the worst climate scenarios are seeing an increase in “high quality grizzly bear habitat” over time.
This is the case through all existing climate models, scenarios, and periods of time studied, Ransom highlights. He and his co-authors put a variety of these models into their study. Each is based in the impact of greenhouse gas emissions and vegetation changes.
What’s good for grizzly bears isn’t necessarily good all around, such as climate change’s relationship with the “super” wildfires of the 21st century. Yet these higher intensity, hotter, more expansive fires continue to remove tree canopy. And as they do, the plants that grizzly bears feast on tend to grow back first. Huckleberry, cow parsnip, and horsetail among them.
“When you look at that over time, even though there will be fires and things that seem sort of catastrophic in ecosystems… Grizzly bears will adapt,” Ransom says.
The Generalist Grizzly Bear and Their Future Conflicts with Humans
As models show, climate change is also causing woody vegetation to elevate. In response to higher temperatures, these plants are now growing in the higher elevations where grizzly bears live. And this, Ransom adds, may be a positive for us humans.
“In the big picture, animals move back in as plants green back up, and (plant) succession starts again,” he notes. In short, human-grizzly conflicts and interactions may decrease as the bears move into higher altitudes and further from human-populated areas.
Grizzly bears are in a unique position to benefit from such vast – and rapid – change, however. As generalists, grizzlies eat a vast array of animal and plant matter. Where there’s food, these bears will make due. Their adaptable nature is also what’s kept them from extinction even as humans continue to threaten their existence outright.
“In the winners and losers of climate change story, (grizzlies) are probably going to be winners, if they’re here,” Ransom says.
‘We know that climate change is already affecting biodiversity, and it’s bad news for biodiversity on the whole’
Other species that depend on specific food sources and ecological niches won’t be so lucky as the climate continues to warm. Wildlife biologists will continue to study the fallout for such species, with the North Cascades National Park Complex a prime place to do so.
The study’s authors estimate that the increase in habitat for grizzly bears in North Cascades will raise its sustainability numbers for the species. Over the next couple of years, North Cascades may host closer to 300 female grizzlies – as opposed to the current baseline of 139.
“We know that climate change is already affecting biodiversity, and it’s bad news for biodiversity on the whole, there’s no question about that,” co-author Meade Krosby adds for The Seattle Times.
But in this case, there “is a bright spot in that it means that for the grizzly, [or] for their habitat at least, this is some evidence that there’ll still be good habitat for them in the North Cascades, at least to the end of the century.”