Date of Award:

Spring 2017

Document Type:

Dissertation

Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department:

Ecology

Advisor/Chair:

Daniel R. MacNulty

Abstract

Driving into Yellowstone National Park for the first time is a moving experience. Gazing over the sweeping landscapes, seeing a geyser erupt 80 feet into the air, and having your first ‘wildlife encounter’, whether that be a 2 ton bull bison aggressively wallowing on his dirt mound, snorting and kicking up dust, or watching a pack of 6 wolves move through a valley off in the distance, pausing to howl in search of their companions. Yellowstone staff wishes to manage our park in a way that preserves these remarkable experiences. In order to effectively manage this dynamic ecosystem, it is critical to thoroughly understand how different animal and plant species interact with each other and their environment.

Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995-1997 and park researchers and managers are still trying to understand how their presence impacts the ecosystem. In Yellowstone, wolves primarily prey on elk; however, predation on bison has started to increase in recent years. We still know little about how wolves hunt bison and what impacts wolves have had on how bison use their environment. The objective of this study was to better understand the behavioral and ecological interactions of wolves and bison, the most dangerous prey for wolves in North America. Since reintroduction, researchers have collected data on how wolves hunt both elk and bison. I used these data to understand 1) the conditions that allow wolves to capture their most dangerous prey, bison, 2) whether wolves have started preying on bison more often as the bison population increased, and 3) whether wolf reintroduction has limited bison use of Yellowstone’s most extreme high-elevation winter range. Finally, I collaborated with ecologists in Scandinavia to determine how wolf predation was affected by a competitor, the brown bear.

My study adds to the current body of work addressing the effects of wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone. This research is unique because it focuses on wolf bison interactions, about which little is known in this system. This research also sheds light on the behavioral relationships at play in a special type of predator-prey interaction: predators that hunt dangerous prey

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