After the elimination of the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park in the early 1900s, the land changed for generations.
Without this apex predator, animals whose populations would normally be kept in check began to increase. That was the case with elk, whose voracious grazing behaviors meant that the landscape was stripped of much of the vegetation, including young trees.
In 1995, the park launched an effort to re-establish wolves – a rewilding experiment that would become an unexpectedly successful, and a powerful teaching tool for others interested in ecosystem restoration.
This past winter John Volin, University of Connecticut professor of natural resources and the environment and vice provost for academic affairs, traveled to Yellowstone to see first-hand how the wolves – and the ecosystem – are faring.
“When the wolves were reintroduced, I’m not sure if anyone knew how transformative it would be,” says Volin.
Trees returned to the landscape. Then the birds returned. Then the beavers returned, followed by numerous other species across the complex, interconnected ecosystem. This is an example of what is called a ‘trophic cascade,’ where a change somewhere within the ecosystem can have profound effects across the system, says Volin.
Examples of other ecosystems that have been negatively and profoundly impacted by the removal of key species extend well beyond Yellowstone National Park. In Connecticut, the eliminations of natural predators has resulted in a deer population which has grown out of control. Deer have consumed the understory of wooded areas, including vital native plant species. Volin hopes to transfer the lessons learned from Yellowstone to the Nutmeg State.
Bringing Knowledge Home
The UConn Forest serves as an immense laboratory, with evidence of disturbances ranging from destructive weather events to areas formerly clear cut for livestock pastures, all giving observers a chance to study how forests regenerate.
While tipping the scale closer to normal was fairly straightforward with the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, Volin notes that the reintroduction of an apex predator like wolves or pumas is highly unlikely to happen in Connecticut’s exurban landscape.
Instead, Volin is looking to apply the lessons of good land management to the area. While it will require diligence, active oversight, and a lot of hard work, he is confident it is possible to restore and maintain a healthy forest.
Nature’s capacity to reclaim is especially evident while walking down a trail that, until recently, was used as a ski hill by the university community. Now, the trail is narrow, surrounded by dense undergrowth amid trees 10 inches or more in diameter.
“Yes, as recently as the 1970s, this hill was a ski slope – and you can see why,” says Volin, as he navigates down the increasingly steep incline.
Pausing, he points out various invasive species just off the trail, such as Oriental bittersweet, multifloral rose, and Japanese barberry – all unpalatable to deer and native insects, unfortunately, which means that they grow unencumbered, making restoration of native forests far more of a challenge.
“After an area is disturbed, typically by anthropogenic causes, it provides conditions for many non-native invasive plant species to establish and eventually dominate,” says Volin. “This forest is nothing like it would have looked 40 years ago much less 200 years ago, or, given recent outbreaks of non-native emerald ash borer and gypsy moth caterpillars, how it will look in the not too distant future.”
This stretch of the UConn Forest also looks nothing like Yellowstone National Park. But as vastly different as each is, both areas speak to the same point – disturbances in the ecosystem drastically alter the landscape.
Volin says, “that healthy functioning ecosystems are typically defined by being in a state of dynamic equilibrium that, while they may remain relatively stable, allow for gradual changes through natural succession – and healthy ecosystems are necessary for human wellbeing because we rely on functioning natural ecosystems to provide the ecosystems services we all depend on for our survival.” For instance, natural ecosystems provide for clean water, pollination of crops, control of climate, among many more benefits, including recreational ones.
“If we don’t have healthy, functioning forests, we don’t have clean water, for example,” says Volin, “We rely on healthy ecosystems.”
Watch the video to hear about Volin’s trip, disturbance ecology, and why healthy ecosystems are vital for our survival.