Friday, October 23, 2015

Thoreau in Yellowstone

New research project seeks to replicate Concord work in Wyoming

Posted by Richard Primack

In September I traveled to Wyoming to meet with ecologists Corrina Riginos and Geneva Chong who plan to monitor the effects of climate change on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Their project will be similar to our work with Thoreau and Concord, building on past observations made by the noted naturalist Frank Craighead. 

Figure 1. Geneva, Corinna, and me in the foothills of the Tetons.

After a visit to Teton National Park, we had a two-day field trip to Yellowstone National Park. This was particularly exciting for me as examples from Yellowstone have been featured in editions of my conservation biology textbooks. After two days in the park, I concluded that Yellowstone features world-class large mammals, geothermal features, and mountain scenery in a safe and accessible setting. The highlight of the trip was watching a pack of ten wolves playing in a field. The enormous number of tourists was surprising, and this was not even the height of the season. 

Figure 2. Bison grazing in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone. Note that there is minimal regeneration of tree seedlings.

I came to understand that the bison, wolves, elk, and bear are all extensively managed by park officials, so that Yellowstone is not a true wilderness. The simple story that wolves were re-introduced to the park, controlled elk numbers, and allowed the vegetation and ecosystem processes to return to their natural balance, is an over-simplification of a complicated story. 

Figure 3. Tourists at Prism Lake, with bright orange bacterial streaks growing in association with hot mineral water. These bacteria contribute enzymes that are important in the high temperature reactions used in the biotechnology industry.

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