Felicetti, L.A., C.C. Schwartz, R.O. Rye, M.A. Haroldson, K.A. Gunther, D.L. Phillips, and C.T. Robbins. Use of sulfur and nitrogen stable isotopes to determine the importance of whitebark pine nuts to Yellowstone grizzly bears. Can J. Zool. 81:763-770. WED-03-094
Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is a masting species that produces relatively large, fat and protein-rich nuts that are consumed by grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis). Trees produce abundant nut crops in some years and poor crops in other years. Grizzly bear survival in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is strongly linked to variation in pine nut availability. Because whitebark pine trees are infected with blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), an exotic fungus that has killed the species throughout much of its range in the northern Rocky Mountains, we used stable isotopes to quantify the importance of this food resource to Yellowstone grizzly bears while healthy populations of the trees still exist. Whitebark pine nuts have a sulfur isotope signature (9.2 ± 1.3‰) (mean ± 1SD) that is distinctly different from all other grizzly bear foods that range from 1.9 ± 1.7‰ for all other plants to 3.1 ± 2.6‰ for ungulates. Feeding trials with captive grizzly bears were used to develop relationships between dietary sulfur, carbon, and nitrogen isotope signatures and those of bear plasma. The sulfur and nitrogen relationships were used to estimate the importance of pine nuts to free-ranging grizzly bears from blood and hair samples collected between 1994 and 2001. During years of poor pine nut availability, 72% of the bears made minimal use of pine nuts. During years of abundant cone availability, 8 ± 10% of the bears made minimal use of pine nuts while 67 ± 19% derived over 51% of their assimilated sulfur and nitrogen (i.e., protein) from pine nuts. Pine nuts and meat are two critically important food resources for Yellowstone grizzly bears.