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Understanding the ecological role of wolves in Yellowstone National Park

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Posted September 1, 2015
Study of predator-prey relationships in Yellowstone could contribute to predator conservation and management worldwide.
Wolves and Yellowstone. In the public mind, and in nature, the two are inextricably linked. Now, it turns out, they aren't alone on the ecological dance floor. Elk and willows play a critical role in wolves' success in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem, willows serving as browse for elk--and elk as food for wolves. But there's another species involved, one that's instrumental to these well-choreographed steps: the beaver. Find out more in this discovery. Image credit: NPS

Wolves and Yellowstone. In the public mind, and in nature, the two are inextricably linked. Now, it turns out, they aren’t alone on the ecological dance floor. Elk and willows play a critical role in wolves’ success in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem, willows serving as browse for elk–and elk as food for wolves. But there’s another species involved, one that’s instrumental to these well-choreographed steps: the beaver. Find out more in this discovery. Image credit: NPS

Long loathed as a threat and nuisance, the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park was essentially wiped out by the mid 1920s. That changed in 1995, when the National Park Service reintroduced wolves there, with the goal of restoring a natural predator/prey dynamic to the landscape.

So, 20 years later, how has the park’s ecosystem responded to the return of the wolves? That’s just what Utah State University wildlife ecologist Dan MacNulty and his team want to find out.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and working in partnership with the National Park Service, MacNulty and his team are hot on the trail of the wolves’ primary prey–elk. The team is following individually marked wolves and elk to determine how and why wolf-elk interactions fluctuate over time, the effects of these fluctuations on wolf traits and vital rates, and how wolves, grizzly bears and cougars interact to influence elk mortality rates. Fuller understanding of what’s happening here could translate to better predator management decisions all over the globe.

Source: NSF

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