Human activity mediates a trophic cascade caused by wolves

Mark Hebblewhite, Clifford A. White, Clifford G. Nietvelt, John A. McKenzie, Tomas E. Hurd, John M. Fryxell, Suzanne E. Bayley, Paul C. Paquet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

357 Scopus citations


Experimental evidence of trophic cascades initiated by large vertebrate predators is rare in terrestrial ecosystems. A serendipitous natural experiment provided an opportunity to test the trophic cascade hypothesis for wolves (Canis lupus) in Banff National Park, Canada. The first wolf pack recolonized the Bow Valley of Banff National Park in 1986. High human activity partially excluded wolves from one area of the Bow Valley (low-wolf area), whereas wolves made full use of an adjacent area (high-wolf area). We investigated the effects of differential wolf predation between these two areas on elk (Cervus elaphus) population density, adult female survival, and calf recruitment; aspen (Populus tremuloides) recruitment and browse intensity; willow (Salix spp.) production, browsing intensity, and net growth; beaver (Castor canadensis) density; and riparian songbird diversity, evenness, and abundance. We compared effects of recolonizing wolves on these response variables using the log response ratio between the low-wolf and high-wolf treatments. Elk population density diverged over time in the two treatments, such that elk were an order of magnitude more numerous in the low-wolf area compared to the high-wolf area at the end of the study. Annual survival of adult female elk was 62% in the high-wolf area vs. 89% in the low-wolf area. Annual recruitment of calves was 15% in the high-wolf area vs. 27% without wolves. Wolf exclusion decreased aspen recruitment, willow production, and increased willow and aspen browsing intensity. Beaver lodge density was negatively correlated to elk density, and elk herbivory had an indirect negative effect on riparian songbird diversity and abundance. These alternating patterns across trophic levels support the wolf-caused trophic cascade hypothesis. Human activity strongly mediated these cascade effects, through a depressing effect on habitat use by wolves. Thus, conservation strategies based on the trophic importance of large carnivores have increased support in terrestrial ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2135-2144
Number of pages10
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2005


  • Carnivore
  • Community ecology
  • Conservation
  • Herbivory
  • Human activity
  • Park management
  • Predation
  • Predator exclusion
  • Trophic cascade
  • Wolf


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