Trophic cascades in Yellowstone: the first 15 years after wolf reintroduction Public Deposited

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  • The 1995/96 reintroduction of gray wolves (Canis lupus) into Yellowstone National Park after a 70 year absence has allowed for studies of tri-trophic cascades involving wolves, elk (Cervus elaphus), and plant species such as aspen (Populus tremuloides), cottonwoods (Populus spp.), and willows (Salix spp.). To investigate the status of this cascade, in September of 2010 we repeated an earlier survey of aspen and measured browsing and heights of young aspen in 97 stands along four streams in the Lamar River catchment of the park’s northern winter range. We found that browsing on the five tallest young aspen in each stand decreased from 100% of all measured leaders in 1998 to means of <25 % in the uplands and <20 % in riparian areas by 2010. Correspondingly, aspen recruitment (i.e., growth of seedlings/sprouts above the browse level of ungulates) increased as browsing decreased over time in these same stands. We repeated earlier inventories of cottonwoods and found that recruitment had also increased in recent years. We also synthesized studies on trophic cascades published during the first 15 years after wolf reintroduction. Synthesis results generally indicate that the reintroduction of wolves restored a trophic cascade with woody browse species growing taller and canopy cover increasing in some, but not all places. After wolf reintroduction, elk populations decreased, but both beaver (Caster canadensis) and bison (Bison bison) numbers increased, possibly due to the increase in available woody plants and herbaceous forage resulting from less competition with elk. Trophic cascades research during the first 15 years after wolf reintroduction indicated substantial initial effects on both plants and animals, but northern Yellowstone still appears to be in the early stages of ecosystem recovery. In ecosystems where wolves have been displaced or locally extirpated, their reintroduction may represent a particularly effective approach for passive restoration.
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  • Ripple, W. J., & Beschta, R. L. (2011). Trophic Cascades in Yellowstone: The First Fifteen Years after Wolf Reintroduction. Biological Conservation.
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