Biology & Ecology

Yellowstone National Park is the centerpiece of the 20 million acre/31,250 square-mile Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a region that includes Grand Teton National Park, adjacent National Forests and expansive wilderness areas in those forests. The ecosystem is the largest remaining continuous stretch of mostly undeveloped pristine land in the continental United States, considered the world's largest intact ecosystem in the northern temperate zone (although the area is mostly not temperate but subalpine, and all the national forest lands surrounding the National Park are not intact). With the successful wolf reintroduction program, which began in the 1990s, virtually all the original faunal species known to inhabit the region when white explorers first entered the area can still be found there.

Flora

Over 1,700 species of trees and other vascular plants are native to the park. Another 170 species are considered to be exotic species and are non-native. Of the eight conifer tree species documented, Lodgepole Pine forests cover 80% of the total forested areas. Other conifers, such as Subalpine Fir, Engelmann Spruce, Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir and Whitebark Pine, are found in scattered groves throughout the park. As of 2007, the whitebark pine is threatened by a fungus known as white pine blister rust; however, this is mostly confined to forests well to the north and west. In Yellowstone, about seven percent of the whitebark pine species have been impacted with the fungus, compared to nearly complete infestations in northwestern Montana. Quaking Aspen and willows are the most common species of deciduous trees. The aspen forests have declined significantly since the early 20th century, but scientists at Oregon State University attribute recent recovery of the aspen to the reintroduction of wolves which has changed the grazing habits of local elk.

There are dozens of species of flowering plants that have been identified, most of which bloom between the months of May and September. The Yellowstone Sand Verbena is a rare flowering plant found only in Yellowstone. It is closely related to species usually found in much warmer climates, making the sand verbena an enigma. The estimated 8,000 examples of this rare flowering plant all make their home in the sandy soils on the shores of Yellowstone Lake, well above the waterline.

nature

In Yellowstone's hot waters, bacteria form mats of bizarre shapes consisting of trillions of individuals. These bacteria are some of the most primitive life forms on earth. Flies and other arthropods live on the mats, even in the middle of the bitterly cold winters. Initially, scientists thought that microbes there gained sustenance only from sulfur. In 2005 researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder discovered that the sustenance for at least some of the diverse hyperthermophilic species is molecular hydrogen.

Thermus aquaticus is a bacterium found in the Yellowstone hot springs that produces an important enzyme (Taq polymerase) that is easily replicated in the lab and is useful in replicating DNA as part of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) process. The retrieval of these bacteria can be achieved with no impact to the ecosystem. Other bacteria in the Yellowstone hot springs may also prove useful to scientists who are searching for cures for various diseases.

Non-native plants sometimes threaten native species by using up nutrient resources. Though exotic species are most commonly found in areas with the greatest human visitation, such as near roads and at major tourist areas, they have also spread into the backcountry. Generally, most exotic species are controlled by pulling the plants out of the soil or by spraying, both of which are time consuming and expensive.

Fauna

Yellowstone is widely considered to be the finest megafauna wildlife habitat in the lower 48 states. There are almost 60 species of mammals in the park, including the gray wolf, the threatened lynx, and grizzly bears. Other large mammals include the bison (often referred to as buffalo), black bear, elk, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, mountain goat, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and mountain lion.

The Yellowstone Park bison herd is the largest public herd of American bison in the United States. The relatively large bison populations are a concern for ranchers, who fear that the species can transmit bovine diseases to their domesticated cousins. In fact, about half of Yellowstone's bison have been exposed to brucellosis, a bacterial disease that came to North America with European cattle that may cause cattle to miscarry. The disease has little effect on park bison, and no reported case of transmission from wild bison to domestic livestock has been filed. However, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has stated that bison are the "likely source" of the spread of the disease in cattle in Wyoming and North Dakota. Elk also carry the disease and are believed to have transmitted the infection to horses and cattle. Bison once numbered between 30 and 60 million individuals throughout North America, and Yellowstone remains one of their last strongholds. Their populations had increased from less than 50 in the park in 1902 to 4,000 by 2003. The Yellowstone Park bison herd reached a peak in 2005 with 4,900 animals. Despite a summer estimated population of 4,700 in 2007, the number dropped to 3,000 in 2008 after a harsh winter and controversial brucellosis management sending hundreds to slaughter. The Yellowstone Park bison herd is believed to be one of only four free roaming and genetically pure herds on public lands in North America. The other three herds are the Henry Mountains bison herd of Utah, at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and in Elk Island National Park in Alberta.

bison

To combat the perceived threat of brucellosis transmission to cattle, national park personnel regularly harass bison herds back into the park when they venture outside of the area's borders. During the winter of 1996–97, the bison herd was so large that 1,079 bison that had exited the park were shot or sent to slaughter. Animal rights activists argue that this is a cruel practice and that the possibility for disease transmission is not as great as some ranchers maintain. Ecologists point out that the bison are merely traveling to seasonal grazing areas that lie within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that have been converted to cattle grazing, some of which are within National Forests and are leased to private ranchers. APHIS has stated that with vaccinations and other means, brucellosis can be eliminated from the bison and elk herds throughout Yellowstone.

Starting in 1914, in an effort to protect elk populations, the U.S. Congress appropriated funds to be used for the purposes of "destroying wolves, prairie dogs, and other animals injurious to agriculture and animal husbandry" on public lands. Park Service hunters carried out these orders, and by 1926 they had killed 136 wolves, and wolves were virtually eliminated from Yellowstone. Further exterminations continued until the National Park Service ended the practice in 1935. With the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the wolf was one of the first mammal species listed. After the wolves were extirpated from Yellowstone, the coyote then became the park's top canine predator. However, the coyote is not able to bring down large animals, and the result of this lack of a top predator on these populations was a marked increase in lame and sick megafauna.

By the 1990s, the Federal government had reversed its views on wolves. In a controversial decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which oversees threatened and endangered species), northwestern wolves, imported from Canada, were reintroduced into the park. Reintroduction efforts have been successful with populations remaining relatively stable. A survey conducted in 2005 reported that there were 13 wolf packs, totaling 118 individuals in Yellowstone and 326 in the entire ecosystem. These park figures were lower than those reported in 2004 but may be attributable to wolf migration to other nearby areas as suggested by the substantial increase in the Montana population during that interval. Almost all the wolves documented were descended from the 66 wolves reintroduced in 1995–96. The recovery of populations throughout the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho has been so successful that on February 27, 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population from the endangered species list.

An estimated 600 grizzly bears live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, with more than half of the population living within Yellowstone. The grizzly is currently listed as a threatened species, however the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that they intend to take it off the endangered species list for the Yellowstone region but will likely keep it listed in areas where it has not yet recovered fully. Opponents of delisting the grizzly are concerned that states might once again allow hunting and that better conservation measures need to be implemented to ensure a sustainable population. Black bears are common in the park and were a park symbol due to visitor interaction with the bears starting in 1910. Feeding and close contact with bears has not been permitted since the 1960s to reduce their desire for human foods. Yellowstone is one of the few places in the United States where black bears can be seen coexisting with grizzly bears. Black bear observations occur most often in the park's northern ranges and in the Bechler area which is in the park's southwestern corner.

grizzly bear

Population figures for elk are in excess of 30,000—the largest population of any large mammal species in Yellowstone. The northern herd has decreased enormously since the mid‑1990s; this has been attributed to wolf predation and causal effects such as elk using more forested regions to evade predation, consequently making it harder for researchers to accurately count them. The northern herd migrates west into southwestern Montana in the winter. The southern herd migrates southward, and the majority of these elk winter on the National Elk Refuge, immediately southeast of Grand Teton National Park. The southern herd migration is the largest mammalian migration remaining in the U.S. outside of Alaska.

In 2003 the tracks of one female lynx and her cub were spotted and followed for over 2 miles. Fecal material and other evidence obtained were tested and confirmed to be those of a lynx. No visual confirmation was made, however. Lynx have not been seen in Yellowstone since 1998, though DNA taken from hair samples obtained in 2001 confirmed that lynx were at least transient to the park. Other less commonly seen mammals include the mountain lion and wolverine. The mountain lion has an estimated population of only 25 individuals parkwide. The wolverine is another rare park mammal, and accurate population figures for this species are not known. These uncommon and rare mammals provide insight into the health of protected lands such as Yellowstone and help managers make determinations as to how best to preserve habitats.

Eighteen species of fish live in Yellowstone, including the core range of the Yellowstone cutthroat trout—a fish highly sought by anglers. The Yellowstone cutthroat trout has faced several threats since the 1980s, including the suspected illegal introduction into Yellowstone Lake of lake trout, an invasive species which consume the smaller cutthroat trout. Although lake trout were established in Shoshone and Lewis lakes in the Snake River drainage from U.S. Government stocking operations in 1890, it was never officially introduced into the Yellowstone River drainage. The cutthroat trout has also faced an ongoing drought, as well as the accidental introduction of a parasite—whirling disease—which causes a terminal nervous system disease in younger fish. Since 2001, all native sport fish species caught in Yellowstone waterways are subject to a catch and release law. Yellowstone is also home to six species of reptiles, such as the painted turtle and Prairie rattlesnake, and four species of amphibians, including the Boreal Chorus Frog.

fish

311 species of birds have been reported, almost half of which nest in Yellowstone. As of 1999, twenty-six pairs of nesting bald eagles have been documented. Extremely rare sightings of whooping cranes have been recorded, however only three examples of this species are known to live in the Rocky Mountains, out of 385 known worldwide. Other birds, considered to be species of special concern because of their rarity in Yellowstone, include the common loon, harlequin duck, osprey, peregrine falcon and the trumpeter swan.

Did You Know?

At peak summer levels, 3,500 employees work for Yellowstone National Park concessioners and about 800 work for the National Park Service.