Trophic Cascades and Historic Aspen Recruitment in the Gallatin Elk Winter Range of Southwest Montana
The extirpation of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) by 1930 in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) provided us with an opportunity to study historic aspen (Populus tremuloides ) recruitment with and without a top carnivore predator present. Herbivory, climate trends, fire records, and current conifer invasion were also examined within the context of aspen recruitment. We obtained tree cores and diameter at breast height measurements to create an aspen age-diameter relationship which we used to approximate aspen origination dates. One elk (Cervus elaphus) exclosure, erected in 1945 within the same elk winter range, was compared to the rest of the winter range. Consistent recruitment inside the exclosure began in the 1940s and has continued into the present. Outside of the exclosure, aspen recruitment began decreasing in the 1930s and ceased in the 1950s. Within the scope of the study, we found little correlative evidence between aspen decline and climate trends, conifer invasion, or fire suppression. The results are suggestive of a trophic cascade between aspen recruitment, and historical elk browsing activities as affected by the absence or presence of wolf predation.