Behaviorally mediated trophic cascades (BMTCs) occur when the fear of predation among herbivores enhances plant productivity. Based primarily on systems involving small-bodied predators, BMTCs have been proposed as both strong and ubiquitous in natural ecosystems. Recently, however, synthetic work has suggested that the existence of BMTCs may be mediated by predator hunting mode, whereby passive (sit-and-wait) predators have much stronger effects than active (coursing) predators. One BMTC that has been proposed for a wide-ranging active predator system involves the reintroduction of wolves (Canis lupus) to Yellowstone National Park, USA, which is thought to be leading to a recovery of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) by causing elk (Cervus elaphus) to avoid foraging in risky areas. Although this BMTC has been generally accepted and highly popularized, it has never been adequately tested. We assessed whether wolves influence aspen by obtaining detailed demographic data on aspen stands using tree rings and by monitoring browsing levels in experimental elk exclosures arrayed across a gradient of predation risk for three years. Our study demonstrates that the historical failure of aspen to regenerate varied widely among stands (last recruitment year ranged from 1892 to 1956), and our data do not indicate an abrupt cessation of recruitment. This pattern of recruitment failure appears more consistent with a gradual increase in elk numbers rather than a rapid behavioral shift in elk foraging following wolf extirpation. In addition, our estimates of relative survivorship of young browsable aspen indicate that aspen are not currently recovering in Yellowstone, even in the presence of a large wolf population. Finally, in an experimental test of the BMTC hypothesis we found that the impacts of elk browsing on aspen demography are not diminished in sites where elk are at higher risk of predation by wolves. These findings suggest the need to further evaluate how trophic cascades are mediated by predator–prey life history and ecological context.
Additional publication details
Are wolves saving Yellowstone's aspen? A landscape-level test of a behaviorally mediated trophic cascade
Ecological Society of America
Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit