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Yellowstone National Park Report

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The scale of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) raised numerous questions for the management of natural areas subject to large, infrequent disturbances. An important management issue in YNP involves the interaction of large-scale fire with the large assemblage of native ungulates and vegetation dynamics in the landscape. In this 2-year research project, we are using landscape modeling and field studies to address basic questions about the effects of fire scale and heterogeneity on (1) resource utilization and survival of free-ranging elk (Cervus elaphus) and bison (Bison bison) and (2) the production and regeneration of preferred forage grasses and aspen in northern YNP. We are testing a series of eight hypotheses within the framework of two basic questions. First, we ask whether there are thresholds in fire size that interact with winter severity and ungulate density to determine ungulate resource use and survival on the winter range in northern YNP. This question focuses on the effects of fire size, regardless of the spatial pattern of burning. Second we ask, if large fires occur, does the spatial distribution of burned areas (and hence of higher quality forage) influence ungulate resource use during winters subsequent to the first post-fire year. In this question, we are addressing the effects of spatial pattern on herbivory. We focus on elk and bison because these are by far the most numerous ungulates in the area (Houston 1982), and we have chosen to examine winter grazing and browsing for several reasons. Winter range conditions are the primary determinant of ungulate survival and reproduction in Yellowstone, and winter utilization of the vegetation by ungulates appears to be intense in some areas. Ungulates make distinct foraging choices in the winter as in the rest of the year, and burn patterns may influence those choices in ways that we represent as hypotheses described later. In addition, the activities of animals can be readily monitored in the winter, and the exact locations of feeding and bedding sites can be determined. Travel routes are easily monitored, and the ability to sight animals is high; therefore, group locations and sizes can be readily determined. This research complements ongoing studies in YNP by expanding the spatial scale at which plant-herbivore dynamics are considered and by explicitly addressing the effects of spatial heterogeneity. Our research will produce a spatially explicit simulation model of the 78,000 ha winter range that predicts plant and ungulate dynamics under varying fire sizes, fire patterns, winter weather scenarios, and ungulate densities. The model and field studies will allow quantitative comparisons of the effects of large and small fires on ungulate survival and will thereby permit the simulation of the effects of alternative fire management scenarios.