What is “natural”? : Yellowstone elk population - A case study

Integrative Biology
By:  and 



Ecology analyzes the structure and function of ecosystems at all points along the continuum of human disturbance, from so-called pristine forests to urban backyards. Undisturbed systems provide reference points at one end of the spectrum, and nature reserves and parks are highly valued because they can provide unique examples of such ecosystems. Unfortunately the concept of “natural” or pristine is not that easy to define. Indeed, although ecologists have considered pre-Columbian, western-hemisphere ecosystems to have been largely unaltered by human action, and have termed their state “natural” or “pristine,” evidence from archaeology challenges this view. U.S. and Canadian national parks are charged with preserving the “natural,” and thus need to be able to understand and manage for the “natural.” A pivotal “natural” question in Yellowstone National Park management is the size of the northern-range, wintering elk population at Park establishment in 1872, argued both to have been small and large. Integrating and quantifying several sources of evidence provides a consistent picture of a low population (ca. 5,000–6,000), largely migrating out of the northern range in winter, with little vegetation impact. If we accept this conclusion about what is natural for the Yellowstone ecosystem, then it dramatically alters how we view management alternatives for the Park, which currently supports a northern wintering herd of up to ˜ 25,000 elk.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title What is “natural”? : Yellowstone elk population - A case study
Series title Integrative Biology
DOI 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6602(1998)1:4<133::AID-INBI3>3.0.CO;2-U
Volume 1
Issue 4
Year Published 2000
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Description 16 p.
First page 133
Last page 148
Country United States
State Wyoming
Other Geospatial Yellowstone National Park
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
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