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Wolves influence forest diversity

Posted by Ann Christianson, communications intern at Nov 03, 2009 08:25 PM |
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Cristina Eisenberg, a researcher from Oregon State University, has concluded that a decline in young aspen trees in NW Montana is due to the missing presence of one primary predator: the wolf.

Wolves influence forest diversity

Aspens in the Columbia Highlands. Photo by James Johnston.

If you take a walk through the meadows in the Flathead River drainage in northwestern Montana, you’ll see tall aspen trees that are over 100 years old. Standing well below them are aspens that are in their 20s. However there is a stark absence of any middle aged trees. Cristina Eisenberg, a researcher from Oregon State University,  has concluded that this is due to the missing presence of one primary predator: the wolf.

Her work was recently highlighted in an article that ran in the Missoulian.

"It is," she told the paper, "clear and profound. The wolves leave an indelible mark on the entire ecosystem."

Wolves used to be common in northwestern Montana and preyed on the elk that wintered here. But the wolves had largely disappeared by the 1920s due to hunting and for the next 60 years the elk had free range over their winter pasture. In the presence of so many elk, the young aspen trees were browsed upon and killed, never having the chance to reach maturity. When the wolves began slowly moving back to the area in the mid 1980s their presence reduced the overabundant elk herds and allowed many of the young aspen to survive and flourish.

In the absence of wolves, everything starts to change. Songbirds, who depend on the aspen for habitat, begin to decline. Coyotes become plentiful and eat the squirrels, resulting in a decrease in soil productivity. The high numbers of deer graze on river-bottom willows and the disappearance of these shrubs takes away the shade and food source for the bull trout.  And the cycle continues.

This research is taking place in western Montana, but it’s likely to hold some insights for us here in Washington. With the return of wolves to our mountains, we could be looking forward to a future with more diverse, active and healthy forests.  To ensure that wolves do successfully return, now is time to speak up at the many public hearings around the state on wolf recovery or send comments through our online action center.

 

 

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