My recent trip to Yellowstone came at the 20th anniversary of the big forest fires of 1988, which burned about a third of the park. The last time I had been there, recovery was just beginning. Fishing on the Lamar River, I had stepped from one winter-kill elk skeleton to the next.
It's all different now. There are lots of elk -- and the lodgepole pine forests are all 8-20 feet high.
In the current issue of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's magazine, Bugle, writer Lee Lamb reviews the factors that produced this complex of huge fires (sorry, no link yet), their effects on wildlife, and what happened since.
Immediately after the fires, the nutritional value of annual plants exploded, but then influx of new nutrients slowed. The park's northern elk herd — really too many animals for the habitat — numbered at least 19,000 before the fire. At least half died in 1988-89. The population rebounded, although the introduction of wolves in the mid-1990s, plus hunting when the elk are outside the park, keep the northern herd's population to 8,000-10,000 animals now.
The lodgepole pine forests are coming back, of course. Lamb speaks of more aspen groves in the park—frankly, I did not see them. In fact, I was surprised at how little aspen there was. Unlike here in the southern Rockies, where aspen springs up after a fire, lodgepole is mostly replaced by more lodgepole.
Even-aged stands of lodgepole pine are sometimes called "the green desert," because they permit few other plants and shrubs to grow and provide little food for wildlife other than squirrels.
Right: a tiny aspen crowded out by lodgepole.
M. says she prefers the northern parts of the park--Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley, Mammoth Hot Springs--best, and I tend to agree. Lodgepole pine forests are fairly boring, unless they have geysers and mud pots bubbling up in them.