Elk, aspen & wolves: a complicated food triangle

What about willows?

One of the main criticisms I’ve heard is that the story fails to mention studies indicating measurable changes in willow growth. Willows, a riparian species, have really made a comeback in many areas where wolves are present and have increased the habitat for birds, beavers and fish.

Elk, aspen & wolves: a complicated food triangle.
BRETT FRENCH – Billings Gazette



, ,



  1. Virginia Avatar

    Brett French, as usual, allows a token tiny piece about the wolves/elk impact on willows. He is, in my humble opinion, a tool for the wolf haters, as all of the articles he has written about this subject have played into their hands. But, at least he is an outdoor writer for the Billings Gazette who isn’t totally focused on hunting issues. His articles of his experiences back packing in the Beartooths were pretty good. But, in the end, he does try to placate the hunting/ranching base reading the BG.

  2. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    I hiked into a wolf rendezvous site in the Tetons yesterday. There were thousands and thousands of 2-6 ft. aspen shoots coming up in old elk-damaged aspen groves. (Most of the old aspens had multiple black scars from elk biting the bark off in winter.) I saw four bull elk skulls in the meadow and two wolves. The aspens are thriving where the wolves hang out. (North fork of No-Tellum Creek)

  3. Alan Avatar

    The willow growth is amazing in some areas. China Garden and Willow Park for example. Willow Park is loaded with beaver and I’ve even been seeing occassional moose in there. They have been very scarce in there since about the fires. I took a walk out across Swan Lake Flats the other day and was surprised by the willow growth out there, not yet readily apparent from the road.
    A couple of extra weeks of growth isn’t going to make that big of a difference. We’re not talking about the willows (aspen) growing 12 inches a year rather than 8, we’re talking there are willows (aspen) where there WEREN’T any!
    Whether they are getting a chance to grow because there are fewer mouths to feed or because of the “ecology of fear”, aren’t they both attributed to the presence of wolves?

  4. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    My observations are hardly systematic, but my personal perception is that, like the study, I haven’t seen much change in aspen growth since the wolves came; but to me, clearly, there has been a big response in the growth of willows.

  5. Alan Avatar

    The willows are defineately more noticeable, but aspen are popping up a lot of places I haven’t seen them before (except for a couple of very old, beat up guys). Often they are only a few inches high and you have to look close to see that they are aspen; but they’re not nibbled off. I hiked out today to a small grove in the northern part of the park that I have been visiting on and off for years. The shoots were everywhere over my head. They weren’t that way a few years ago. Willows too had sprouted all around. I felt like I was in the Tetons!!

  6. Brian Ertz Avatar

    wolves ought be allowed to exercise such bio-restorative influence on watersheds throughout the west by imposing a robust “ecology of fear” into ungulates (wild & domestic alike) with impunity.

  7. Linda Hunter Avatar

    It bothers me that this study which supposedly refutes the “biology of fear” says that we simply need less elk. What is the difference then in the two studies? One is simply descriptive of the elk attitude and the other actually endorses the need for elk to move or be killed. How does that “refute” anything. I think journalists are trying to get published by fanning a non-issue.

  8. pointswest Avatar

    The great Aspen province in the US is southwestern Colorado. There are huge stands of Aspen there. Entire landscapes are nothing but Aspens for tens of miles in all directins. In general, there are many more Aspens in the southern Rockies than in the northern Rockies. Many many more, maybe three times as many.

    The southern Rockies are, in general, higher and consequently are as cold, albiet, at higher elevation so it can’t simply be that it is warmer there. I wondered for a long time why there are so many more Aspens in the souther Rockies and finally concluded it must be the summer rains (Although I never have seen this confirmed by biologists). The southern Rockies have a monsoon season around August where the humidity skyrockets and high ranges get afternoon thundershowers everyday. This is where the vast stands of Aspen are.

    In the GYE, the late summer is usually very dry. There may be some humidity and some afternoon showers, but it is nothing like the southern Rockies.

    So I think it is the late summer monsoon that makes for great Aspen habitat. With global warming and the warming of the Pacific Ocean, I’m guessing you are getting more humidity and rain in the late summer in the GYE. The climate of the southern Rockies is moving north. This is making Aspens grow.

    1. pointswest Avatar

      Aspens at the foot of the range in SW Colorado…



Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

We do not accept unsolicited “guest” authors or advertising.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Ken Cole