Ecological - Second Order
Fire & Wildlife
We report on the recent growth of upland aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) thickets in northwestern Yellowstone National Park, USA following wolf (Canis lupus L.) reintroduction in 1995. We compared aspen growth patterns in an area burned by the 1988 fires to aspen growth patterns in an adjacent unburned area. Elk (Cervus elaphus L.) are the principal ungulates that use this area to meet foraging needs. Within a 2 m ? 6 m belt transect established in each aspen thicket, we measured aspen densities and recorded annual browsing and height information on the three tallest post-1988 aspen stems. We found greater densities (p < 0.01) in the burned area relative to the unburned area. A decline in the percentage of stems browsed in the burned area began in 1997, with no measured browsing occurring since 2001. In contrast, the percentage of stems browsed in the unburned area began declining in 2002, with 41% of stems still being browsed in 2004. We hypothesize that the combined effect of fire and a subsequent decrease in herbivory following wolf reintroduction facilitated aspen growth. We further propose that, in addition to any changes in elk density in recent years, a recoupling of fire with increased predation risk from wolves may create a positive feedback loop that improves aspen recruitment.