Trophic cascades and large mammals in the Yellowstone ecosystem Public Deposited

http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/cz30pw241

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  • Reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) in 1995-96 provided a rare opportunity to observe the response of an ecosystem to the return of a top predator, including possible reversal of decades of decline of aspen, cottonwood, and tall willows suppressed by intensive herbivory on elk winter ranges. To investigate changes in aspen stands in northern Yellowstone since the return of wolves, I compared browsing intensity and heights of young aspen in 87 randomly selected stands in 2012 to similar data collected in the same stands in 1997-98. I also measured the spatial density of elk and bison scat piles as an index to relative population densities, and used annual counts of elk to calculate trends in elk density. In 1998, browsing rates averaged 88%, heights were suppressed, and no tall saplings (≥200 cm) were found in sampling plots. In 2012, browsing rates in 2012 were much lower averaging 44%, and 28% of plots had at least one sapling ≥200 cm, tall enough to escape browsing and therefore more likely to survive to replace dying overstory trees. Heights of young aspen were inversely related to browsing intensity, but not significantly related to leader length, suggesting that differences in height were primarily due to differences in browsing, not factors related to productivity. Aspen recovery was patchy, possibly due in part to locally high elk or bison densities in some parts of the winter range. These results of reduced browsing with increased sapling recruitment were consistent with a trophic cascade from wolves to elk to aspen resulting in a widespread and spatially variable recovery of aspen stands. There was wide variation in browsing intensity and aspen height between sectors of the Yellowstone northern ungulate winter range (northern range). The east sector generally had lower rates of browsing and more stands with tall saplings than the central and west sectors, a pattern that matched recent trends in elk population densities. Only a small minority of stands in the west sector had tall saplings, consistent with higher elk densities in the west. Densities of elk in winter on the northern range recently have been highest in the northwest sector outside the park boundary, where elk benefit from lower wolf densities and milder winters. Aspen stands did not recover at a comparable range-wide elk density when elk were culled in the park in the 1950s and 1960s, suggesting that the influence of wolves may be an important factor in the recent redistribution and reduction of herbivory impacts by elk. To examine the relationship between elk and aspen outside of YNP, I assessed browsing intensity and sapling recruitment in 43 aspen stands in the Shoshone National Forest east of the park, compared to data collected in the same stands in 1997-98. As in northern YNP, results were consistent with a trophic cascade with reduced browsing and increased recruitment of aspen saplings, but aspen recovery was patchy. Elk densities were moderate to high in most of the area, suggesting that the partial aspen recovery may involve a behavioral response to predation or other factors resulting in local variation in browsing impacts. Livestock may also have limited aspen recruitment. Recovery of some aspen stands in the Shoshone National Forest may provide some of the first evidence of a trophic cascade from wolves to elk to aspen outside of a national park, a trophic cascade possibly weakened by the influence of another large herbivore (cattle). Like cattle, bison in northern Yellowstone may have an effect on woody browse plants. Bison have increased in number and may prevent recovery of some aspen stands in places of high bison density. I also examined browsing impacts of bison on willow and cottonwood in the Lamar Valley. To distinguish the effects of bison from those of elk, I compared browsing at different heights on tall willows, below and above the reach of bison. Because elk were absent from the area in summer when bison were present at high density, I also measured browsing that occurred in the summer. I found high rates of summer browsing, and growth of willows and cottonwoods was suppressed in the Lamar Valley. Above the reach of bison (>100 cm), growth was not suppressed and browsing rates were low, suggesting that these plant species have been released from suppression by elk but bison have compensated for some of the reduction in elk browsing. This study provided the first evidence of significant herbivory by bison of woody browse plants in Yellowstone, and revealed some of the complexity of the Yellowstone food web. In summary, these research results support the hypothesis of a trophic cascade resulting from large carnivore restoration and subsequent changes in elk population densities and distribution. The return of wolves may have combined with other factors such as changes in hunting and land ownership, and increased predation by bears, to result in large-scale shifts in the distribution of elk in northern Yellowstone and greatly reduced elk densities in some areas. If these trends continue, the result may be a new alternative state with lower elk densities, and potential for enhanced biodiversity through reduced herbivory of woody browse species.
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