Author ORCID Identifier
Luke E. Painter https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2852-9921
Ecology and Evolution
John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
The American bison (Bison bison) is a species that strongly interacts with its environment, yet the effects of this large herbivore on quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) have received little study. We documented bison breaking the stems of aspen saplings (young aspen > 2 m tall and ≤ 5 cm in diameter at breast height) and examined the extent of this effect in northern Yellowstone National Park (YNP). Low densities of Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis) after about 2004 created conditions conducive for new aspen recruitment in YNP's northern ungulate winter range (northern range). We sampled aspen saplings at local and landscape scales, using random sampling plots in 87 randomly selected aspen stands. Across the YNP northern range, we found that 18% of sapling stems had been broken. The causal attribution to bison was supported by multiple lines of evidence: (1) most broken saplings were in areas of high bison and low elk density; (2) saplings were broken in summer when elk were not foraging on them; (3) we directly observed bison breaking aspen saplings; and (4) mixed-effects modeling showed a positive association between scat density of bison and the proportion of saplings broken. In a stand heavily used by bison, most aspen saplings had been broken, and portions of the stand were cleared of saplings that were present in previous sampling in 2012. Bison numbers increased more than fourfold between 2004 and 2015, and their ecosystem effects have similarly increased, limiting and in some places reversing the nascent aspen recovery. This situation is further complicated by political constraints that prevent bison from dispersing to areas outside the park. Thus, one important conservation goal, the preservation of bison, is affecting another long-term conservation goal, the recovery of aspen and other deciduous woody species in northern Yellowstone.
Painter, L. E., R. L. Beschta, and W. J. Ripple. 2023. Bison alter the northern Yellowstone ecosystem by breaking aspen saplings. Ecology and Evolution 13:e10369