Trophic cascades from wolves to grizzly bears in Yellowstone
- We explored multiple linkages among grey wolves (Canis lupus), elk (Cervus elaphus), berry-producing shrubs and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) in Yellowstone National Park.
- We hypothesized competition between elk and grizzly bears whereby, in the absence of wolves, increases in elk numbers would increase browsing on berry-producing shrubs and decrease fruit availability to grizzly bears. After wolves were reintroduced and with a reduced elk population, we hypothesized there would be an increase in the establishment of berry-producing shrubs, such as serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), which is a major berry-producing plant. We also hypothesized that the percentage fruit in the grizzly bear diet would be greater after than before wolf reintroduction.
- We compared the frequency of fruit in grizzly bear scats to elk densities prior to wolf reintroduction during a time of increasing elk densities (1968–1987). For a period after wolf reintroduction, we calculated the percentage fruit in grizzly bear scat by month based on scats collected in 2007–2009 (n = 778 scats) and compared these results to scat data collected before wolf reintroduction. Additionally, we developed an age structure for serviceberry showing the origination year of stems in a northern range study area.
- We found that over a 19-year period, the percentage frequency of fruit in the grizzly diet (6231 scats) was inversely correlated (P < 0·001) with elk population size. The average percentage fruit in grizzly bear scats was higher after wolf reintroduction in July (0·3% vs. 5·9%) and August (7·8% vs. 14·6%) than before. All measured serviceberry stems accessible to ungulates originated since wolf reintroduction, while protected serviceberry growing in a nearby ungulate exclosure originated both before and after wolf reintroduction. Moreover, in recent years, browsing of serviceberry outside of the exclosure decreased while their heights increased.
- Overall, these results are consistent with a trophic cascade involving increased predation by wolves and other large carnivores on elk, a reduced and redistributed elk population, decreased herbivory and increased production of plant-based foods that may aid threatened grizzly bears.