After the elimination of wolves (Canis lupis L.) in the 1920s, woody riparian plant communities on the northern range of Yellowstone National Park (YNP) declined an estimated 50%. After the reintroduction of wolves in 1995–1996, riparian willows (Salix spp.) on YNP's northern range showed significant growth for the first time since the 1920s. However, the pace of willow recovery has not been uniform. Some communities have exceeded 400 cm, while others are still at pre-1995 levels of <80 cm mean height. We took intensive, repeated measurements of abiotic factors, including soil and water-table characteristics, to determine whether these factors might be contributing to the varying pace of willow recovery. Willows at all of our study sites were “short” (<250 cm max. height) prior to 1995 and have recovered to varying degrees since. We contrasted “tall” (>250 cm max. height) willow sites where willows had escaped elk (Cervus elaphus L.) browsing with “short” willow sites that could still be browsed. Unlike studies that manipulated willow height with fences and artificial dams, we examined sites that had natural growth differences in height since the reintroduction of wolves. Tall willow sites had greater water availability, more-rapid net soil nitrogen mineralization, greater snow depth, lower soil respiration rates, and cooler summer soil temperatures than nearby short willow sites. Most of these differences were measured both in herbaceous areas adjacent to the willow patches and in the willow patches themselves, suggesting that they were not effects of varying willow height recovery but were instead preexisting site differences that may have contributed to increased plant productivity. Our results agree with earlier studies in experimental plots which suggest that the varying pace of willow recovery has been influenced by abiotic limiting factors that interact with top-down reductions in willow browsing by elk.
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Vol. 70 • No. 3