Evaluating Aspen Responses to Changes in Elk Abundance, Distribution and Behavior Following Wolf Reestablishment in West-Central Yellowstone National Park
- Scientific Disciplines
- Biological Sciences - Terrestrial
- Montana State University
- Yellowstone national park
- Greater yellowstone ecosystem
- gray wolf
- wolf reintroduction
- trophic cascade
- trophic interactions
- browsing pressure
- aspen morphology
- Garrott, Robert A.
- Shafer, Timothy L.
- Roberts, David W.
- Irvine, Kathryn M.
- Volume 18, No. 1-4
Evaluating aspen responses to changes in elk
Abundance, distribution and behavior following
Wolf reestablishment in west-central yellowstone
Timothy L. Shafer*, Department of Ecology, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana 59717.
David W. Roberts, Department of Ecology, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana 59717
Robert A. Garrott, Department of Ecology, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana 59717.
Kathryn M. Irvine, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Bozeman,
The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park created a unique “natural
experiment” to study trophic interactions in a large-scale terrestrial system among wolves,
elk, and aspen. This study utilized data from a long-term elk demography study that was
established prior to wolf reintroduction. Significant changes in the abundance and distribution
of the Madison headwaters elk herd were observed following wolf reestablishment. The
spatial arrangement of these changes made it possible to directly test for the occurrence of a
density-mediated trophic cascade. The objectives of this study were to answer the following
questions: 1) was there a marked decrease in browsing pressure on aspen where elk densities
declined, and 2) was there a corresponding plant-growth response indicating that aspen were
released from browsing pressure? Historical browsing conditions and aspen height were
observed for 31 aspen stands to assess the occurrence of a density-mediated trophic cascade
following wolf reintroduction. Browse conditions and aspen morphology in stands where elk
densities declined dramatically following wolf reintroduction were compared to stands that
experienced persistent heavy browsing throughout this period. A major decline in browsing
pressure along with a modest increase in aspen height and leader longevity was detected,
supporting the hypothesis of a density-mediated trophic cascade. However, the magnitude of
the growth response was weak, suggesting that browsing was not the dominant limiting factor
to aspen growth in the study area and that aspen may be more strongly limited by bottom-up