Flooded Yellowstone National Park. How are the animals?

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yellowstone national park turned 150 in March. In all these years, we may never have seen such a bad flood like the one this week. Record rainfall, along with warm weather that melted the snow, turned the park’s rivers and streams into punitive forces that destroyed homes, roads and bridges.

Park officials eventually evacuated more than 10,000 visitors on Tuesday and the Montana National Guard rescued dozens of people from nearby campsites and towns, according to the Associated Press. There have been no fatalities or extreme injuries reported so far, although houses were destroyed, and flooding could scar the region’s tourism-dependent economy. The northern part of the park suffered the most damage and could remain closed for months.

Flooding along the Gardner River tore through part of Yellowstone’s North Entrance Road.
National Park Service

A washed out bridge in Yellowstone’s Rescue Creek.
National Park Service

Disasters like this that harm humans and their livelihoods often also impact wildlife, such as wildfires that destroy habitat for koalas and kangaroos and extreme heat which cooks marine life.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Wildlife officials say most of Yellowstone’s animals, from its iconic wolves to the elk they eat, are likely doing just fine, with a few exceptions.

Bears and wolves do not fear floods. Neither did their prey.

Few animals in the United States are more iconic than Yellowstone’s gray wolves, whose history dates back to a famous reintroduction campaign in the 1990s, when wildlife officials brought 31 wolves to the park.

from Yellowstone 100 or else wolves can probably tolerate major flooding, just like other top predatory mammals in the park, including grizzly bears, according to Douglas Smith, senior wildlife biologist with the National Park Service, who works in Yellowstone. These animals don’t tend to hide or travel near rivers, and their offspring are likely at least a few months old, making them less vulnerable, he said. (A visitor spotted a grizzly bear and two cubs in May. they are very cute.)

A gray wolf on the road near Artists’ Paintpots, Yellowstone.
Jacob W. Frank / National Park Service

Some of the animals wolves and bears eat, such as elk, moose and deer, are likely doing just as well, Smith said. They might even benefit from the flooding as the deluge of water gives the plants they eat a boost.

Meanwhile, huge herds of bison simply took to the roads to avoid rising waters, like a TikToker documented.

Waterfowl are in danger, but they too are designed for it

Birds of prey like ospreys and eagles are incredible hunters – they can spot fish in the water from hundreds of feet away, then dive-bomb them (which looks good in metal).

But that only works if the water is clear, and right now it’s not. Floods cause sediment loads in rivers, making them turbid. “Opreys can’t see fish,” Smith said. “Opreys can be badly affected because they depend almost entirely on fish.”

Ospreys are skilled hunters who can spot fish hundreds of feet above a river. Here, an osprey carries a fish in its oversized talons on March 12, 2022 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Birds that nest near water, such as trumpeter swans and loons, can also face challenges when water encroaches on their newly laid eggs, Smith said. “It could be a complete reproductive failure,” he said, meaning their eggs might not hatch. Starting next week, wildlife officials will fly a plane over the park to check the status of the nests, he said.

But waterbirds also have strategies to resist flooding, as you can imagine. In one of the park’s lakes, wildlife teams saw water beginning to break through a swan’s nest. “It [the swan] done today is adding nesting material to build the nest to keep the eggs dry,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a race against the water.

A Trumpeter Swan takes off from a pond in Yellowstone National Park.
Jacob W. Frank / National Park Service

Although not ideal, yearling egg loss isn’t a major problem for most waterfowl in the park, he said. “Their whole ecology is about overcoming bad years, where you get nothing,” Smith said of some of the park’s avian species. They often live for a few decades – loons, for example, can live over 30 years – giving them plenty of opportunities to produce offspring within a year under better conditions.

A drop in visitor numbers will likely help wildlife

Last year, Yellowstone had its busiest June on record, with almost 1 million visitors driving and hiking in the park. This traffic is essential to the local economy, generating revenue and supporting thousands of jobs in the park and its neighboring municipalities.

The recent floods have put this economic machine in jeopardy, as the park could lose visitors this summer. But while it’s a problem for people, it can actually be a boon for wildlife, said University of Alberta ecology professor Mark Boyce.

“The upside is there will be fewer people disturbing the wildlife,” he said by email. “Traffic disrupts the animals, keeping them off the roads later in the day.” (He actually ended up to research this confirms that.)

It’s not the roads themselves that tend to disturb wildlife, he added, but people and traffic. And these disturbances can be costly for some animals, its research suggestscausing them to expend energy avoiding people, which might otherwise be used for things like reproduction.

Climate change could push animals beyond their limits

Yellowstone’s animals, like many places, have evolved to withstand dramatic changes in the environment – they are used to flooding in the spring. “Although this year’s runoff is extraordinary and record high, the mountains are known for heavy runoff every spring,” Smith said. Bears, wolves and other animals, he added, “are used to having impassable streams and rivers”.

What is concerning, however, is that these extreme events seem to be happening more often, likely due to climate change. According to a big report published last year. The park is also warming up, according to the report.

And that could have consequences for wildlife (as well as humans). In the past, any 10-year period had a few good years, a few average years and a few bad years for wildlife, Smith said. And now? “We think the quotient of bad years is increasing because of climate change,” he said.

So while wildlife is likely to remain resilient in the face of this disaster, we must also recognize that resilience has its limits. The big problem for Yellowstone’s animals isn’t bad flooding. It is that there could be many more extreme weather events in the years to come.

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