Conservationists Crying Wolf? New Study Shows Yellowstone’s Ecosystem Dynamics More Complex than Trophic Cascade

Since their reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park, wolves have been heralded in documentaries and conservation stories as the controversial savior of Yellowstone’s ecosystem. However, new research by ecologists at Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources proves that diverse variables must be taken into account to fully understand how ecosystems respond to changes in food web structures.
 
The research is the first to show that reductions in elk numbers following the reintroduction of wolves are proportionate to increases in willow height along streams in Yellowstone. While that could lead to the simple conclusion that wolves improved the ecosystem, their central finding was that the relationship between elk and willow health was also dependent on geography, climate, and water supply for the willows. 
 
“The effects of modifying a food web can’t be predicted by only studying one thing in isolation. No single force explains the patterns of plant establishment and growth in Yellowstone over the past 3 decades,” said CSU Professor Thompson Hobbs, who is also a research scientist at CSU’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory and co-author on the paper. “It has been popular and convenient to tell the romantic tale that wolves have restored Yellowstone. But our findings prove that it is not that simple.”
 

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Professor Melinda Laituri Named Jefferson Science Fellow

Colorado State University Professor and Researcher Melinda Laituri has been selected as a 2014 Jefferson Science Fellow. In this position, Laituri will serve as a science adviser for U.S. foreign policy to the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
 
The Jefferson Science Fellows (JSF) program was established in 2003 to strengthen the engagement of American academic science, technology, engineering (STE) and medical communities in the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy. Laituri will begin her one-year term in August 2014 and will work on water-related policy issues that include the University WASH Consortium, water data integration efforts, and gender issues related to access to water.
 
STE issues are recognized as essential elements of good governance and creating effective international relationships,” said Laituri. “I am honored to have the opportunity to contribute my experience in watershed science and natural resources research and education to important foreign policy issues facing the nation.”

Laituri is a professor of geography in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources. She has taught at CSU for 19 years, and teaches courses such as sustainable watersheds, watershed science, geographic information systems, and geography of hazards. She is also a professor in an interdisciplinary natural resources immersion field course that teaches ecological field measurements at CSU’s mountain campus, Pingree Park, each summer. 
 
“We are very proud of Dr. Laituri’s many contributions to science, policy and education and her unique ability to integrate the multiple facets of natural resource management, nationally and globally,” said Joyce Berry, Dean of CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources.     

In addition to her teaching, Laituri is also Director of CSU’s Geospatial Centroid, a center that promotes GIS activities, education, and outreach at CSU and in Colorado. She is a Scholar at CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES), and she is the lead project investigator for the SoGES Global Challenges Research Team Headwaters Initiative.
 
As a Fulbright Scholar, Laituri was at the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Scientific Innovation at the University of Botswana.  She is also a Rachel Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich where she contributes to geospatial applications in environmental history.

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ESS Scientists Discover Climate Change Alters Survival Strategies of Soil Bacteria

What will happen to important soil microorganisms when intense droughts and floods become more common? Ecosystem ecologists at Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources have published a new paper in Ecology Letters that holds the key to understanding which species of soil microorganisms will adapt and which will perish.

Climate forecasters predict that the timing and magnitude of rainfall events will intensify and become more varied in future decades, resulting in longer droughts but bigger downpours. This weather whiplash can wreak havoc on ecosystems and disrupt sensitive organisms such as microscopic soil bacteria that play in ecosystem health, soil fertility and in nutrient cycling. As many as 10,000 species of bacteria can live in a hand full of soil, and each has a different and important role to play within the community. But, little is known about their ability to tolerate or respond to changes in precipitation patterns – until now.

“These soil microbial communities impact ecosystem health, plant communities, carbon emissions, agriculture and much more,” said Sarah Evans, a CSU doctoral graduate and the paper’s lead author. “So, it is important to know how these microorganisms are going to respond to changes in precipitation patterns.”

Evans and CSU Ecosystem Science and Sustainability Professor Matthew Wallenstein examined whether bacterial communities can adapt to long-term changes in their climate, and the survival strategies that allow certain species to thrive under these new conditions.  The team collected soil samples from the Rainfall Manipulation Plot Study in the US tallgrass prairie, where intensified precipitation patterns have been simulated for over a decade, as well as samples of soils receiving natural rainfall. The research team conducted a series drying and rewetting pulses on the different soils, and analyzed bacterial communities using a DNA approach.

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