Concept: Yellowstone National Park
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
- Published 12 months ago
The economic and ecological costs of wildfire in the United States have risen substantially in recent decades. Although climate change has likely enabled a portion of the increase in wildfire activity, the direct role of people in increasing wildfire activity has been largely overlooked. We evaluate over 1.5 million government records of wildfires that had to be extinguished or managed by state or federal agencies from 1992 to 2012, and examined geographic and seasonal extents of human-ignited wildfires relative to lightning-ignited wildfires. Humans have vastly expanded the spatial and seasonal “fire niche” in the coterminous United States, accounting for 84% of all wildfires and 44% of total area burned. During the 21-y time period, the human-caused fire season was three times longer than the lightning-caused fire season and added an average of 40,000 wildfires per year across the United States. Human-started wildfires disproportionally occurred where fuel moisture was higher than lightning-started fires, thereby helping expand the geographic and seasonal niche of wildfire. Human-started wildfires were dominant (>80% of ignitions) in over 5.1 million km(2), the vast majority of the United States, whereas lightning-started fires were dominant in only 0.7 million km(2), primarily in sparsely populated areas of the mountainous western United States. Ignitions caused by human activities are a substantial driver of overall fire risk to ecosystems and economies. Actions to raise awareness and increase management in regions prone to human-started wildfires should be a focus of United States policy to reduce fire risk and associated hazards.
Scientific management of wildlife requires confronting the complexities of natural and social systems. Uncertainty poses a central problem. Whereas the importance of considering uncertainty has been widely discussed, studies of the effects of unaddressed uncertainty on real management systems have been rare. We examined the effects of outcome uncertainty and components of biological uncertainty on hunt management performance, illustrated with grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) in British Columbia, Canada. We found that both forms of uncertainty can have serious impacts on management performance. Outcome uncertainty alone - discrepancy between expected and realized mortality levels - led to excess mortality in 19% of cases (population-years) examined. Accounting for uncertainty around estimated biological parameters (i.e., biological uncertainty) revealed that excess mortality might have occurred in up to 70% of cases. We offer a general method for identifying targets for exploited species that incorporates uncertainty and maintains the probability of exceeding mortality limits below specified thresholds. Setting targets in our focal system using this method at thresholds of 25% and 5% probability of overmortality would require average target mortality reductions of 47% and 81%, respectively. Application of our transparent and generalizable framework to this or other systems could improve management performance in the presence of uncertainty.
The effect of anthropogenic noise on terrestrial wildlife is a relatively new area of study with broad ranging management implications. Noise has been identified as a disturbance that has the potential to induce behavioral responses in animals similar to those associated with predation risk. This study investigated potential impacts of a variety of human activities and their associated noise on the behavior of elk (Cervus elaphus) and pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) along a transportation corridor in Grand Teton National Park.
Since 1980, bison have injured more pedestrian visitors to Yellowstone National Park (Yellowstone) than any other animal (1). After the occurrence of 33 bison-related injuries during 1983-1985 (range = 10-13/year), the park implemented successful outreach campaigns (1) to reduce the average number of injuries to 0.8/year (range = 0-2/year) during 2010-2014 (unpublished data, National Park Service, September 2015). During May-July 2015, five injuries associated with bison encounters occurred (Table). Case reports were reviewed to evaluate circumstances surrounding these injuries to inform prevention.
Tracking and preventing the spillover of disease from wildlife to livestock can be difficult when rare outbreaks occur across large landscapes. In these cases, broad scale ecological studies could help identify risk factors and patterns of risk to inform management and reduce incidence of disease. Between 2002 and 2014, 21 livestock herds in the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) were affected by brucellosis, a bacterial disease caused by Brucella abortus, while no affected herds were detected between 1990 and 2001. Using a Bayesian analysis, we examined several ecological covariates that may be associated with affected livestock herds across the region. We showed that livestock risk has been increasing over time and expanding outward from the historical nexus of brucellosis in wild elk on Wyoming’s feeding grounds where elk are supplementally fed during the winter. Although elk were the presumed source of cattle infections, occurrences of affected livestock herds were only weakly associated with the density of seropositive elk across the GYA. However, the shift in livestock risk did coincide with recent increases in brucellosis seroprevalence in unfed elk populations. As increasing brucellosis in unfed elk likely stemmed from high levels of the disease in fed elk, disease-related costs of feeding elk have probably been incurred across the entire GYA, rather than solely around the feeding grounds. Our results suggest that focused disease mitigation in areas where seroprevalence in unfed elk is high could reduce the spillover of brucellosis to livestock. We also highlight the need to better understand the epidemiology of spillover events with detailed histories of disease testing, calving, and movement of infected livestock. Finally, we recommend using case-control studies to investigate local factors important to livestock risk.
Past research indicates that whitebark pine seeds are a critical food source for Threatened grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). In recent decades, whitebark pine forests have declined markedly due to pine beetle infestation, invasive blister rust, and landscape-level fires. To date, no study has reliably estimated the contribution of whitebark pine seeds to the diets of grizzlies through time. We used stable isotope ratios (expressed as δ13C, δ15N, and δ34S values) measured in grizzly bear hair and their major food sources to estimate the diets of grizzlies sampled in Cooke City Basin, Montana. We found that stable isotope mixing models that included different combinations of stable isotope values for bears and their foods generated similar proportional dietary contributions. Estimates generated by our top model suggest that whitebark pine seeds (35±10%) and other plant foods (56±10%) were more important than meat (9±8%) to grizzly bears sampled in the study area. Stable isotope values measured in bear hair collected elsewhere in the GYE and North America support our conclusions about plant-based foraging. We recommend that researchers consider model selection when estimating the diets of animals using stable isotope mixing models. We also urge researchers to use the new statistical framework described here to estimate the dietary responses of grizzlies to declines in whitebark pine seeds and other important food sources through time in the GYE (e.g., cutthroat trout), as such information could be useful in predicting how the population will adapt to future environmental change.
Whole-genome sequencing has provided fundamental insights into infectious disease epidemiology, but has rarely been used for examining transmission dynamics of a bacterial pathogen in wildlife. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), outbreaks of brucellosis have increased in cattle along with rising seroprevalence in elk. Here we use a genomic approach to examine Brucella abortus evolution, cross-species transmission and spatial spread in the GYE. We find that brucellosis was introduced into wildlife in this region at least five times. The diffusion rate varies among Brucella lineages (∼3 to 8 km per year) and over time. We also estimate 12 host transitions from bison to elk, and 5 from elk to bison. Our results support the notion that free-ranging elk are currently a self-sustaining brucellosis reservoir and the source of livestock infections, and that control measures in bison are unlikely to affect the dynamics of unrelated strains circulating in nearby elk populations.
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.
US national parks are challenged by climate and other forms of broad-scale environmental change that operate beyond administrative boundaries and in some instances are occurring at especially rapid rates. Here, we evaluate the climate change exposure of 289 natural resource parks administered by the US National Park Service (NPS), and ask which are presently (past 10 to 30 years) experiencing extreme (<5th percentile or >95th percentile) climates relative to their 1901-2012 historical range of variability (HRV). We consider parks in a landscape context (including surrounding 30 km) and evaluate both mean and inter-annual variation in 25 biologically relevant climate variables related to temperature, precipitation, frost and wet day frequencies, vapor pressure, cloud cover, and seasonality. We also consider sensitivity of findings to the moving time window of analysis (10, 20, and 30 year windows). Results show that parks are overwhelmingly at the extreme warm end of historical temperature distributions and this is true for several variables (e.g., annual mean temperature, minimum temperature of the coldest month, mean temperature of the warmest quarter). Precipitation and other moisture patterns are geographically more heterogeneous across parks and show greater variation among variables. Across climate variables, recent inter-annual variation is generally well within the range of variability observed since 1901. Moving window size has a measureable effect on these estimates, but parks with extreme climates also tend to exhibit low sensitivity to the time window of analysis. We highlight particular parks that illustrate different extremes and may facilitate understanding responses of park resources to ongoing climate change. We conclude with discussion of how results relate to anticipated future changes in climate, as well as how they can inform NPS and neighboring land management and planning in a new era of change.
Wild American plains bison (Bison bison) populations virtually disappeared in the late 1800s, with some remnant animals retained in what would become Yellowstone National Park and on private ranches. Some of these private bison were intentionally crossbred with cattle for commercial purposes. This forced hybridization resulted in both mitochondrial and nuclear introgression of cattle genes into some of the extant bison genome. As the private populations grew, excess animals, along with their history of cattle genetics, provided founders for newly established public bison populations. Of the US public bison herds, only those in Yellowstone and Wind Cave National Parks (YNP and WCNP) appear to be free of detectable levels of cattle introgression. However, a small free-ranging population (~350 animals) exists on public land, along with domestic cattle, in the Henry Mountains (HM) of southern Utah. This isolated bison herd originated from a founder group translocated from YNP in the 1940s. Using genetic samples from 129 individuals, we examined the genetic status of the HM population and found no evidence of mitochondrial or nuclear introgression of cattle genes. This new information confirms it is highly unlikely for free-living bison to crossbreed with cattle, and this disease-free HM bison herd is valuable for the long-term conservation of the species. This bison herd is a subpopulation of the YNP/WCNP/HM metapopulation, within which it can contribute significantly to national efforts to restore the American plains bison to more of its native range.