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A "trophic cascade" is the term that biologists use to explain the domino effect that individual variables often have on the larger picture of an ecosystem. The term has traditionally been used in well-documented cases of change in aquatic ecosystems, where food chains are generally more distinguishable and the influence of variable components is more clearly documented. The reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone Park in the mid 1990s has sparked a tropic cascade of its own, however, and the implications have biologists howling.
After higher-level predators were removed from the natural environment of the American west (wolves were on the brink of extinction by 1880) by wholesale slaughter there was a noticeable shift in the balance of previously healthy ecosystems. Without the checks-and-balances that nature had previously provided, other animals such as elk and deer began decimating the populations of other flora and fauna, completely indirectly. Unchecked, these large herbivores threw the delicate environment off balance by over grazing, their expanding numbers ravaging both meadows and forested areas. Native species of plants, from the picturesque aspen, willow and cottonwood trees to the delicate grasses and flowers such as Indian Paintbrush, were either trampled or grazed down to bare earth.
The loss of the wolves and other predators set off a chain reaction that continues to devastate the immediate and greater biosphere. Without the diversity of plant life to support the various components, the ecosystem began to break down. Just one element of the broader picture, saplings were destroyed, allowing invasive trees to populate forested areas, which in turn drove smaller mammals such as beaver out. Without the contribution of the beaver dams to the health of the river systems, water quality changed and erosion increased, driving off many species of predatory birds and fish which lead, in turn, to the decimation of many more plant species.
Although the balance of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem has been seriously compromised, the decade since the reintroduction of the gray wolf has resulted in a noticeable return to normalcy. Thanks to the canine hunters, elk populations have returned to more traditional grazing and calving grounds, many dwindling tree species have been given a chance to recover, and the dominos have begun to replace themselves. The reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone has provided a key example of the interdependency of both small and large scale ecosystems and a crucial document to the importance of conservation. SEE ALSO: www.nrdc.org/onearth/04sum/briefings.asp
SEE ALSO: www.nps.gov/yell/naturescience/wolfrest.htm
SEE ALSO: www.rockywolf.org
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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