Did wolves revive Yellowstone?

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Did wolves revive Yellowstone?
In an undated image provided by Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service, a herd of bison engulf a motorist in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone’s ecological transformation through the reintroduction of wolves has become a case study for how to correct out-of-balance ecosystems — but new research challenges that notion. (Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service via The New York Times)

by Jim Robbins

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYO.- In 1995, 14 wolves were delivered by truck and sled to the heart of Yellowstone National Park, where the animal had long been absent. Others followed.

Since then, a story has grown up, based on early research, that as the wolves increased in number, they hunted the park’s elk herds, significantly reducing them by about half from 17,000.

The wolves’ return and predatory dominance was believed to have had a widespread effect known as a trophic cascade, by decreasing grazing and restoring and expanding forests, grasses and other wildlife. It supposedly even changed the course of rivers as streamside vegetation returned.

Yellowstone’s dramatic transformation through the reintroduction of wolves has become a global parable for how to correct out-of-balance ecosystems.

In recent years, however, new research has walked that story back. Yes, stands of aspen and willows are thriving again — in some places. But decades of damage from elk herds’ grazing and trampling so thoroughly changed the landscape that large areas remain scarred and may not recover for a long time, if ever.

Wolf packs, in other words, are not magic bullets for restoring ecosystems.

“I would say it’s exaggerated, greatly exaggerated,” said Thomas Hobbs, a professor of natural resource ecology at Colorado State University and the lead author of a long-term study that adds new fuel to the debate over whether Yellowstone experienced a trophic cascade.

“You could argue a trophic trickle maybe,” said Daniel Stahler, the park’s lead wolf biologist who has studied the phenomenon. “Not a trophic cascade.”

Not only is the park’s recovery far less robust than first thought, but also the story as it has been told is more complex, Hobbs said. But the legend of the wolves’ influence on the park persists.

“How in the world does this lovely story — and it is a beautiful story — come to be seen as fact?” Hobbs wondered. A chapter of a book tried to answer that, concluding that a video called “How Wolves Change Rivers,” which has received tens of millions of views, contributed mightily to the tale.

The ecological record is complicated by the fact that, as elk declined, the number of bison increased substantially, continuing some of the same patterns, like heavy grazing in places. And Yellowstone is growing warmer and drier with climate change.

Large numbers of elk in the north of the park caused significant ecological changes: vegetation disappeared, trampled streams led to extensive erosion, and invasive plant species took hold. Riparian vegetation, or the grasses, trees and shrubs along riverbanks and streams, provides a critical habitat for birds, insects and other species to flourish and to maintain biodiversity.

Once elk numbers dwindled, willows and aspens returned along rivers and streams and flourished. The beaver, an engineer of ecosystems, reappeared, using the dense new growth of willows for both food and construction materials. Colonies built new dams, creating ponds that enhanced stream habitats for birds, fish, grizzlies and other bears as well as promoting the growth of more willows and spring vegetation.

But wolves were only one piece of a larger picture, argue Hobbs and other skeptics of a full-blown trophic cascade at Yellowstone. Grizzly bears and humans played a role, too. For eight years after wolves reentered the park, hunters killed more elk than the wolves did. “The other members of the predator guild increased, and human harvest outside of the park has been clearly shown to be responsible for the decline in elk numbers the first 10 years after the wolves were introduced,” Hobbs said.

The changes attributed to the presence of stalking wolves, some research showed, weren’t only the result of fewer elk, but also of a change in elk behavior: “the ecology of fear.” Scientists suggested that the big ungulates could no longer safely hang out along river or stream banks and eat everything in sight. They became extremely cautious, hiding in places where they could be vigilant. That allowed vegetation to return.

Hobbs and others contend that later research has not borne that theory out.

Another overlooked factor is that around the same time wolves were returning, 129 beavers were reintroduced by the U.S. Forest Service onto streams north of the park. So it wasn’t just wolf predation on elk and the subsequent return of wolves that enabled an increase in beavers, experts say.

Some researchers say the so-called trophic cascade and rebirth of streamside ecosystems would have been far more robust if it weren’t for the park’s bison herd. The bison population is at an all-time high — nearly 5,000 at the most recent count last summer. Much larger than elk, bison are less likely to be vulnerable to wolves.

The park’s bison, some researchers say, are overgrazing and damaging the ecosystems — allowing the spread of invasive species and trampling native plants.

The heavily grazed landscape is why, critics say, some 4,000 bison, also a record, left Yellowstone for Montana in the winter of 2023-24, when an unusually heavy snow buried forage. Because some bison harbor a disease, called brucellosis, that state officials say could infect cattle, they are not welcome outside the park’s borders. (There are no documented cases of transmission between bison and cattle.)

Montana officials say killing animals that may carry disease as they leave the park is the only way to stem the flow. During a hunt that began in the winter of 2023, Native Americans from tribes around the region took part. All told, hunters killed about 1,085 bison; 88 more were shipped to slaughter and 282 were transferred to tribes. This year, just a few animals have left the park.

The Park Service is expected to release a bison management plan in the coming months. It is considering three options: to allow for 3,500 to 5,000 animals, 3,500 to 6,000, or a more natural population that could reach 7,000.

Richard Keigley, who was a research ecologist for the federal Geological Survey in the 1990s, has become an outspoken critic of the park’s bison management.

“They have created this juggernaut where we’ve got thousands of bison and the public believes this is the way things always were,” he said. “The bison that are there now have destroyed and degraded their primary ranges. People have to realize there’s something wrong in Yellowstone.”

Keigley said the bison population fluctuated in the early years of the park, with about 229 animals in 1967. It has grown steadily since and peaked last year at 5,900.

“There is a hyperabundant bison population in our first national park,” said Robert Beschta, a professor emeritus of forest ecosystems at Oregon State University who has studied Yellowstone riparian areas for 20 years. He pointed to deteriorating conditions along the Lamar River from bison overgrazing. “They are hammering it,” Beschta said. “The Lamar ranks right up there with the worst cattle allotments I’ve seen in the American West. Willows can’t grow. Cottonwoods can’t grow.”

A warmer and drier climate, he said, is making matters worse.

Such opinions, however, are not settled science. Some park experts believe that the presence of thousands of bison enhances park habitats because of something called the Green Wave Hypothesis.

Chris Geremia, a park biologist, is an author of a paper that makes the case that large numbers of bison can stimulate plant growth by grazing grasses to the length of a suburban lawn. “By creating these grazing lawns bison and other herbivores — grasshoppers, elk — these lawns are sustaining more nutritious food for these animals,” he said.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation organization, favors a bison population of 4,000 to 6,000. Shana Drimal, who heads the group’s bison conservation program, said park officials needed to monitor changing conditions such as climate, drought and bison movement to ensure the ecosystems wouldn’t become further degraded.

Several scientists propose allowing the bison to migrate to the buffer zones beyond the park’s borders, where they are naturally inclined to travel. But it remains controversial because of the threat of disease.

“The only solution is to provide suitable winter range outside the park where they should be tolerated,” said Robert Crabtree, a chief scientist for the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center, a nonprofit. “When they migrate outside the park now it’s to habitat they evolved to prefer — and instead we kill them and ship them away.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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