Oregon study blames Olympic National Park erosion on loss of wolves

By Tom Callis For Peninsula Daily News

The disappearance of wolves from Olympic National Park in the 1920s has led to a significant decrease in vegetation and increase in soil erosion, a study done by Oregon State University researchers says.

Robert Beschta, forest hydrology professor, and William Ripple, forestry professor, began researching in 2005 the effect that the absence of wolves has had on the park.

In a report released on Wednesday, they concluded that the loss of the park's primary predator has left the elk's feeding patterns unchecked for 80 years.

"It does make a difference, and it's huge," Beschta said.

Without the threat of predation, Bresctha said elk, the primary prey of wolves, will graze in a single area for a longer period of time than if they were more threatened therefore decreasing the amount of vegetation in the park to a greater extent, and permitting erosion of stream banks.

"It just poses a threat to the basic ecology (of the park)," he said.

"If you want species that are sustainable other than elk, we have some big problems ahead of us."

Breschta said possible solutions to the problem could be removing some elk out of the park or reintroducing wolves.

The researchers will not recommend any action, he said.

Barb Maynes, Olympic National Park spokeswoman, said that a feasibility study on reintroducing wolves into the park was done many years ago.

In 1999, public outcry quashed plans to reintroduce wolves into Olympic National Park.

There are no plans to reintroduce wolves into the park, Maynes said.

"We appreciate all the research and all the data collected, so this is one more study that we will look at and consider, but we have no plans to take any action on this," she said.

In August 2007, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, at a scoping meeting in Sequim, said that neither the state nor the federal government had any plans whatsoever to reintroduce wolves anywhere in the state.

But they are coming anyway, moving into the northeast corner of the state from British Columbia and Idaho, Harriet Allen, Fish and Wildlife's threatened and endangered species manager, told the group.

The meeting was one of several in the state on the drafting of a gray wolf management plan for Washington state that is expected to be completed in 2009.

Elk populations
According to the Oregon State University study, elk populations in the park exploded from above 1,000 in 1990 to about 4,000 in the 1920s as settlers killed wolves, primarily to protect livestock.

Overgrazing in the park led to widespread elk starvation during the winter months after 1930, which lead to a drop in population to about 2,000 elk in 1960, the study says.

Beschta said elk populations in the park have remained fairly consistent since, and the change in their grazing patterns because of the absence of wolves has had a significant effect on plant life.

According to the study, the loss of streamside vegetation has caused widespread erosion of banks.

"The Olympics are interesting because it's one of the most productive rain forests in the country," Beschta said.

"It's an area that you may not expect this to occur."

Streams in the park were densely wooded in the early 20th century, and early settlers described the Quinalt River as a stream that traveled "between two rather narrow, heavily wooded banks," the study says.

Today, the report describes stream banks with eroding banks that are easy to walk through.

According to the study, the older flood plains that support black cottonwood and big leaf maple trees along streams is expected to be decreased due to erosion by 90 percent in the next 140 years.

These surfaces will likely disappear by the time vegetation can grow back, the report says.

Ripple and Breschta have conducted similar research to their Olympic National Park study in five other national parks since 2001.

Olympic National Park was the last to be studied.

Breschta said the conclusions for all six national parks were almost the same, though wolves and elk weren't always the species being studied.

Cougar and mill deer populations were studied in Yosemite and Zion national parks.

Breschta said in these two areas, park visitors have scared cougars out of the valleys, leaving the deer population unchecked.

Last modified: July 12. 2008 9:00PM
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