The iconic sites at Yellowstone National Park are many. Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley to name just a few. The wonder from visiting such locations makes it easy to miss another very important scenic marvel because of its prevalence – the forest.
Approximately 80 percent of the park’s 3,471 square miles is covered in Douglas and Subalpine Fir, Lodgepole and Ponderosa Pine, Blue Spruce, Rocky Mountain Juniper and Quaker Aspen. It’s part of a complex ecosystem that is in a constant state of flux.
Microsoft AI and SilviaTerra, a consulting firm dedicated to assisting in the management of forests, recently partnered to map 20 forests across the country as part of the Tree Potential Project. The study catalogued the dominant tree species and used Artificial Intelligence to identify patterns and information to better manage and protect the trees.
Yellowstone is one of the forests you can explore to learn more about the trees you’ll see during your visit and how you can help improve the ecosystem.
What You’ll See
The mapping creates an almost three-dimensional display of the forest. As you click on specific tree species, the areas where those trees are found become elevated from the forest floor. The visual display allows you to appreciate the diversity and interconnection between species.
Perhaps most importantly, the study identifies which specie or species might be struggling and need help to protect the ecosystem.
In the case of Yellowstone, the forest’s balance is off due to the underrepresentation of Quacking and Bigtooth Aspen. The two species account for only 1-2 percent of trees on Yellowstone’s Northern Range, which is a four- to five-fold decrease from the forest’s historic balance.
How it Happened
So, where did the aspens go? Settlers in the region during the late twentieth century considered wolves to be a nuisance and hunted the animals almost to extinction. The absence of wolves allowed elk populations to explode.
The elk munched on aspen saplings, preventing the trees to mature. The result was a 90 percent reduction in aspen groves.
The reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 as part of the Endangered Species Act returned the elk’s natural predator to the park. The result has been a decrease of the elk population to more sustainable levels, giving aspen saplings the chance to thrive.
How to Help
The Nature Conservancy has piggybacked on the Tree Project as part of its goal to plant 1 billion trees by 2025. When your support the effort by donating a tree, the Nature Conservancy will donate two. The conservation group is using the information from Microsoft and SilviaTerra to concentrate those donations on planting the right trees for each forest in the study. The impact to Yellowstone will be the planting of more aspens to help return the forest to equilibrium.