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Are wolves saving Yellowstone's aspen trees from elk?
Date:9/1/2010

Previous research has claimed that the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 is helping restore quaking aspen in risky areas where wolves prowl. But apparently elk hungry for winter food had a different idea. They did not know they were supposed to be responding to a "landscape of fear."

According to a study set to be published this week in Ecology, a journal of the Ecological Society of America, the fear of wolf predation may not be discouraging elk from eating aspen trees after all.

Previous thinking went like this: Aspen are not regenerating well in Yellowstone National Park. Elk eat young aspen. But wolves eat elk. Elk will learn to avoid high-risk areas that wolves frequent. Plants in those areas such as aspen will then get a chance to grow big enough so that elk cannot kill them. Eventually, an entire habitat is restored because of a landscape of fear.

Over the last 15 years, the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone was heralded as a great success, not only because it reestablished the species, but also because wolves were expected to help restore a healthier ecosystem through such cascading indirect effects on other species.

But this recent study led by Matthew Kauffman, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, suggests that aspen are not benefitting from the landscape of fear created by wolves, and that claims of an ecosystem-wide recovery of aspen are premature.

"This study not only confirms that elk are responsible for the decline of aspen in Yellowstone beginning in the 1890s, but also that none of the aspen groves studied after wolf restoration appear to be regenerating, even in areas risky to elk," said Kauffman.

Because the fear of wolves does not appear to be benefiting aspen, the authors conclude that if the Northern Range elk population does not continue to decline -- their numbers are 40 percent of what they were before wolves -- many of Yellowston
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Contact: Katie Kline
katie@esa.org
202-833-8773 x211
Ecological Society of America
Source:Eurekalert  

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