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Aspen is Making a Comeback in and Around Yellowstone National Park, Because of Predators

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Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) recruitment during the 1980s–90s was suppressed by Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis) herbivory on winter ranges in the Yellowstone region, and saplings (young aspen taller than 2 m) were rare. Following the 1995–96 reintroduction of gray wolves (Canis lupus), browsing decreased and sapling recruitment increased in Yellowstone National Park. We compared aspen data from inside the park to data collected in three winter ranges outside the park. For most areas, the percentage of young aspen browsed annually was 80–100% in 1997–98, decreasing to 30–60% in 2011–15. Sapling recruitment was inversely correlated with browsing intensity, and increased despite climate trends unfavorable for aspen. Browsing decreased with decreasing elk density, a relationship suggesting that densities greater than about 4 elk/km2 resulted in consistently strong browsing effects likely to suppress aspen recruitment. Changes in elk density and distribution were influenced by predators, as well as human hunters. Most evidence for trophic cascades involving large terrestrial mammals has been from protected areas within national parks. This study provides evidence of widespread changes in plant communities resulting from large carnivore restoration, extending outside a protected national park to areas with hunting, livestock grazing, and other human activities.

Document: Painter_et_al-2018-Ecosphere.pdf  PDF icon

Author(s): Luke E. Painter, Robert L. Beschta, Eric J. Larsen, And William J. Ripple

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