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Wolves, trophic cascades, and rivers in the Olympic National Park, USA

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Gray wolves (Canis lupus) were extirpated in the early 1900s from the Olympic Peninsula of northwestern Washington. Thus, we studied potential cascading effects of wolf removal by undertaking a retrospective study of Roosevelt elk (Cervus elaphus) populations, riparian forests, and river channel morphology. For three riparian sites within the western portion of Olympic National Park, the age structure of black cottonwood and bigleaf maple indicated a pattern of significantly decreased recruitment (growth of seedlings/sprouts into tall saplings and trees) associated with intensive elk browsing in the decades following the loss of wolves. At a riparian site outside the park, which represented a refugium from elk browsing, cottonwood recruitment has been ongoing during the 20th century, indicating that climate and flow regimes, in the absence of intensive herbivory, have not limited the establishment and growth of this deciduous woody species. Using 1994 orthophotos, we also measured channel dimensions and planform morphology of 8-km-long river reaches at each vegetation sampling site and an additional reach outside the park. Channels inside the park versus those outside the park had greater percent braiding (37 vs 2%) and larger ratios of active channel width/wetted width (3Ð0 vs 1Ð5 m/m). Results for western Olympic National Park were consistent with a truncated trophic cascade hypothesis whereby ungulate browsing following the extirpation of wolves caused significant long-term impacts to riparian plant communities which, in turn, allowed increased riverbank erosion and channel widening to occur.

Document: 2008-Beschta-_-Ripple-Olympic-trophic-cascades.pdf  PDF icon

Author(s): Robert L. Beschta and William J. Ripple

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