- According to general top-down trophic theory, in the presence of carnivores, herbivore behavior and/or densities could change and result in an overall decrease in herbivory on plant communities. In this dissertation, I examined the potential relationship between gray wolf (Canis lupus) presence and absence on elk (Cervus elaphus) herbivory of aspen (Populus tremuloides). Based on aspen tree cores and an age-diameter relationship, I approximated aspen origination dates both within and outside two elk exclosures to study long-term patterns of aspen recruitment in the Gallatin elk winter range of northwestern Yellowstone National Park, USA. From aspen data, I concluded that while a host of interacting biophysical factors may influence aspen recruitment and growth, the observed pattern of aspen decline is most correlated with elk herbivory, coincident with the presence and absence of wolves.
Outside of the elk winter range, but still within the northwestern portion of the park, I studied growth patterns of clonal upland aspen thickets since wolf reintroduction. Growth patterns were compared in an area burned in the 1988 fires to an adjacent area that was unburned. From the results, I proposed that in addition to any wolf-mediated changes in elk densities, a recoupling of fire with increased elk predation risk in the presence of wolves may improve upland clonal aspen recruitment.
To examine the potential for a trophic cascade from the perspective of elk, I measured vigilance behavior in female elk throughout the park during both winter and summer seasons. After vigilance behavior was recorded, I noted the distance to, and type of, objects that could have impeded observed female elk escape from predators. From my model selection procedure, I concluded elk foraging behavior appeared to vary with physical features in the landscape. This variation in foraging behavior with risk of predation provides a potential mechanism to explain the patchy release of preferred woody browse species within the Park. Therefore, in addition to density-mediated effects, the results are consistent with a behaviorally-mediated top-down trophic cascade between wolves, elk, and aspen.