The Yellowstone National Park Fire of 1988 - Paper Example

Published: 2021-07-30
1952 words
8 pages
17 min to read
George Washington University
Type of paper: 
Research paper
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The Yellowstone Park has survived many fires which usually lasted for at least one year. Often, these are small fires which probably go out on their own. In 1972 the National Park Service applied a let it burn policy that allowed natural fires. The policy proved to be successful, and the Park Service followed it for the next 16 years. But the 1988 summer was different from the previous fire seasons. The fire broke out in June 1988 and by that time; Yellowstone was already in severe drought despite the rainy spring season. By mid-July, the fire caused by both human carelessness and lightning had consumed about 17,000 acres in the park. This pressing issue made the Park Service nervous and the let it burn policy put on hold (Fifer and Orr 636).

The fire became uncontrollable by the end of July, and the public blamed the Park Service for failing to do their job. But the Park Superintendent Bob Barbee, considered the situation to be unavoidable. The fires continued to burn until the winter snows of November extinguished the last blazes. Throughout that summer and fall, 25000 firefighters and more from around the country came in. At the end of it all, the fire scorched about 1.2 million acres in the more extensive Yellowstone area leaving the impression that the first national park had finally collapsed. The media presence heightened, and the coverage aired on television about the fires was horrific and scared many people who thought that Yellowstone would be destroyed and ruined forever. But the fears later were proved wrong (Fifer and Orr 638).

The fire burning at different intensities, it destroyed many lodgepole pines and other trees, but it did not ruin most of the other plants. They barely burned the tops leaving the roots to regenerate. The temperatures that were high enough to kill deep roots occurred in lesser part of the park. The fire was only able to burn for several hours on the under logs and in deep litter accumulations. New plants began to grow within a few days in the areas that had water. Rhizomes, bulbs, seeds and other reproductive tissues in the dry soils had to wait for the soil moisture to replenish on the following spring. The vegetation life in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem has adapted to fire, and some depend on it. Certain plant species rely on the fire to remove the forest canopy so that they can flourish. They established immediately after the fire. Other species, on the other hand, those that grow on the forest floor have adapted to stay at subsistence level for a long time. These remained at this level until fires opened up the canopy. The flames created a landscape diversified in age, and this reduced the possibility of disease or fire spreading to more substantial parts (Romme, et al. 1196).

The vegetation in the northern range which was rich did not burn excessively until the final days of the fire season. Just like many natural settings, the vegetation life of Yellowstone is in good part driven by these fires. History research stated that the fires naturally burnt the grasslands and forest repeatedly over the past years and had generated the mosaic cover and habitat types witnessed in the park in the present.

The soils in Yellowstone that support growth of little vegetation has not been affected by the fire. One year after the 1988 tragedy, plant growth was unusually lush because of the mineral nutrients that were present in the ash and the increased sunlight on the forest floor. Moss an inch or thicker established in the burned soils, and was a factor in moisture retention, promoting revegetation and slowed erosion. The amount of soil loss and sediment deposits in streams after the fires varied significantly. Although excessive erosion and mudslides occurred along the Gibbon River after heavy rains in the summer of 1989, it remains unknown of how much the fires contributed to this. By 1991, vegetation grew and in turn slowed the soil erosion. About a quarter of the Yellowstone Lake and Lewis Lake watersheds and half of the Heart Lake watershed burned to some extent, but no significant changes were detected in stream bank erosion, substrate composition, channel morphology, nutrient enrichment, or plankton production (Romme, et al. 1215).

Wildlife species in Yellowstone are not significantly affected by wildfires. The 1988 fire resulted in a few deaths of animals, and most of the deaths were as a result of inhalation of smoke. However, portions of the northern range burned, affecting the winter survival of browsing animals when coupled together with summer drought conditions. These fires posed a significant impact on the habitat and food production of Yellowstone for the short term. The 1988 fires created a landscape of burns, partially burned areas and unburned areas-called a mosaic. A mosaic brings upon natural fire breaks and sustains a better variety of plant and animal species. Vegetation that is capable of surviving another major fire will be rare for the coming decades except in extraordinary cases (Middleton, et al., 1245)

Among the animals, only the moose experienced a population decline of the Yellowstones seven native ungulate species. Although estimates of moose population have been imprecise, it appears that with decreased willow and subalpine fir present for winter browse, and snow increasing with many canopy forests gone, moose winter mortality increased. Mortality in all ungulate species was high in the winter after the 1988 fires, but it is difficult to tell how much of that was the result of burned forage rather than drought, large herd sizes, and the severe winter. Elk, bison, and deer populations soon rebounded after the fire (Middleton, et al. 1246).

Out of the 38 grizzly bears that were wearing radio transmitters when the fires started, 21 of them had suffered burns by at least some of the flames. Out of those 13 migrated into burned areas after the fire at the front had ceased, three adult females with no young ones stayed within the actively burning areas as the burning continued and three remained outside the fire zone. One adult female not located until after two years and another female situated not wholly. Research showed that bears grazed more often around burned areas than unburned ones. This situation, therefore, pointed out that the fire did not affect the number of grizzly bears in the more significant ecosystem (Middleton, et al. 1246).

Rodents, however, suffered the highest number of casualties among mammals. Despite the fact that many could have escaped through their burrowed holes, many suffocated while trying to come out of them. They also got overexposed to predators due to the loss of coverage of the grass and shrubs. But since they populate quickly, they quickly increased their numbers after the fire. Many birds were not harmed directly by the fire and most benefited. Some hunted the rodents that flee the flames but the young offspring still in the nests were killed. The habitat changes after the fires helped some of the birds. Cavity-nesting birds like the goldeneye and bluebirds had many dead trees in the nests. Flickers and robins found insects easily, but Boreal owls lost the mature forests they so much thrive on and need.

Wolves were once the dominant predators in Yellowstone National Park. But their numbers were eradicated in the 1920s, leaving the wilderness wolf-free for seven decades. Yellowstone biologists began exploring the idea of introducing Canadian wolves to the Yellowstone Park. On 12th of January 1995, the first eight wolves brought from Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. When the grey wolf was introduced to the Yellowstone ecosystem in 1995, there was only one beaver colony. Currently, the park is home to nine beaver colonies, with hopes of more to come. The reintroduction of wolves to the park once again continues to astonish biologists with a ripple of direct and indirect consequences all over the ecosystem. The wolves led to the reduction of the elk population and protected the open valleys from overgrazing (Ripple and Beschta 205).

Even though the Yellowstone elk were preyed upon by black and grizzly bears, cougars and coyotes after the wolf were killed off in the 1930s, the absence of the wolves took a significant amount of predatory pressure off the elk. The outcome led to the thriving of the elk population. The elk overgrazed and they didnt move around in the winter-browsing profoundly on the willow, aspen and cottonwood plants. That was a disadvantage to the beavers, which depend the willows to survive winter. Today, the willow standards have robust because the elk are on the move due to the predatory pressure they get from the wolves. The elks dont have time to excessively browse on the willow.

A geological survey in Fort Collins depicted that the combination of intense elk grazing on the willows and simulated beaver cuttings led to stunted willow standards. Conversely, mock beaver cuttings without elk browsing, verdant, healthy standards of willow produced. The experimental results conducted for three years proved that the biomass of the willow stem was ten times greater than on browsed vegetation. Unbrowsed vegetation recovered 84 percent of their pre-cut biomass after two growing seasons whereas the browsed vegetation recovered only by 6 percent (Ripple and Beschta 206).

Wolves come and go enabling biologists to study the behaviors of elk in the presence and absence of wolves. When wolves are around, the elk become more vigilant and do less foraging. They tend to move into heavy timbers when wolves are present. But when the wolves go away, they return to the grassy, open meadows. When wolves are around, elk herd size reduces into smaller units to avoid encounters with wolves. Yellowstone wolves are food distributors. Research shows that wolves are the primary reason for elk mortality in the absence of hard winters. Deep snows were the primary determinant of whether an elk was going to die before the reintroduction of wolves. The combination of less snow and more wolves benefits both big and small scavengers from ravens to grizzly bears. Scavengers that relied on elk that were killed by winter for food now depend on the elk that are executed by wolves. This habit benefits ravens, eagles, magpies, coyotes, black and grizzly bears, primarily as the hungry bears emerged from hibernation (Ripple and Beschta 213).

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service describes this scenario as food for the masses. Ed is genuinely surprised by the vast web of life linked to wolf kills. (beetles wolverine, lynx and much more).

Though so many acres of land burned and the landscape of the Yellowstone Park was severely affected, new growth immediately flourished, and the natural healing process began again. The Great Fire was a beneficiary to the parks ecosystems. It reduced dead vegetation, stimulated new vegetation growth, and improved wildlife habitat. Fire is a joint to living systems, the start of a new state of life on the land which is part of a cycle that has been in place for a lot of years. For the Yellowstone National park Service, fire plays an important role; they used it as an essential management tool which enables it to continue its natural position on the landscape. The park and fire managers must be able to evaluate each fire that begins as to whether it should be suppressed or allowed to burn. Any wildfire that poses a threat to human life or safety should indeed be contained. Managers may choose to steer the fire away from specific areas by digging fireline or burning vegetation in advance to create a buffer. These actions are done to protect unique resources or reduce smoke emissions in particular areas while still allowing the beneficial fire to spread in other areas. Otherwise, the fire should be put out if it is not achieving the objec...

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