Yellowstone National Park turned 150 in March. In all these years, there may never have been such a severe flood as this week’s. Record rain, along with hot weather that melted the snow, turned the park’s rivers and streams into penal forces that destroyed houses, roads and bridges.
Park officials eventually evacuated more than 10,000 visitors Tuesday, and the Montana National Guard rescued dozens of people from nearby campgrounds and cities, according to The Associated Press. So far, no deaths or extreme injuries have been reported, though houses have been destroyed and floods could scare the area’s economy, which depends on tourism. The northern part of the park suffered the most damage and could remain closed for several months.
Disasters like this that harm humans and their livelihoods often affect wildlife, such as wildfires that destroy habitats for koalas and kangaroos and extreme heat that burns life in the ocean.
But that does not seem to be the case here. Wildlife officials say most of Yellowstone’s animals, from its iconic wolves to the moose they eat, are probably fine with a few exceptions.
Bears and wolves do not fear floods. Nor did their prey.
Few animals in the United States are more iconic than Yellowstone’s gray wolves, whose history goes back to a famous reintroduction campaign in the 1990s, in which wildlife officials brought 31 wolves to the park.
According to Douglas Smith, a senior wildlife biologist at the National Park Service who works in Yellowstone, Yellowstone’s hundreds of wolves are likely to tolerate major flooding, as do the park’s other top mammalian predators, including grizzly bears. These animals do not tend to hide or travel near rivers, and their offspring are probably at least a few months old, making them less vulnerable, he said. (A visitor saw a grizzly bear and two cubs in May. They are very cute.)
Some of the animals wolves and bears eat, such as moose, elk and deer, are probably just as well off, Smith said. They can even benefit from the flood as the floodwaters give the plants they eat a boost.
Meanwhile, huge flocks of bison simply took to the roads to avoid rising water, as documented by a TikToker.
Waterfowl are in danger, but they are also designed for that
Birds of prey such as ospreys and eagles are amazing hunters – they can spot fish in water hundreds of meters away and then dive-bomb them (which looks quite metallic).
But it only works if the water is clear and it is not right now. Floods cause sediment loads in rivers, making them cloudy. “Opreys can’t see fish,” Smith said. “Opreys can be hit hard because they are almost exclusively dependent on fish.”
Birds that breed near water, such as trumpet swans and loons, can also face challenges when water penetrates their newly laid eggs, Smith said. “It could be a complete reproductive failure,” he said, meaning their eggs might not hatch. From next week, wildlife officials will fly a plane over the park to check the status of the shipowners, he said.
But waterfowl also have strategies to resist flooding that you can imagine. In one of the park’s lakes saw wildlife water begin to break through a swan. ” That [the swan] done today is to add nesting material to build the nest to keep the eggs dry, ”said Smith. “It will be a race against the water.
While not ideal, the loss of annual eggs is not a major issue 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 bird species. They often live for a couple of decades – loons, for example, can live over 30 years – which gives them ample opportunity to have offspring within a year under better conditions.
A decrease in the number of visitors is likely to help wildlife
Yellowstone had its busiest June ever last year, with nearly a million visitors driving and hiking through the park. This traffic is vital to the local economy, generates revenue and supports thousands of jobs in the park and its neighboring towns.
The recent floods have put this economic machine in jeopardy as the park could lose visitors this summer. But even though it is a problem for humans, it can actually be a boon to wildlife, said University of Alberta ecology professor Mark Boyce.
“The benefit is that there will be fewer people disrupting wildlife,” he said via email. “The traffic disturbs the animals and keeps them off the roads later in the day. (He actually did research that supports this.)
It is not the roads themselves that tend to disrupt wildlife, he added, but people and traffic. And according to his research, these disturbances can be costly for some animals by causing them to consume energy to avoid humans, which could otherwise be used for things like reproduction.
Climate change can push animals beyond their borders
Yellowstone animals, like many places, have evolved to withstand dramatic changes in the environment – they are used to flooding in the spring. “While this year’s runoff is extraordinary and record high, the mountains are known for heavy runoff each spring,” Smith said. Bears, wolves and other animals, he added, “are used to having impassable streams and rivers.”
What is worrying, however, is that these extreme events seem to be happening more often, probably due to climate change. Since 1950, spring precipitation has increased by 23% in April and May (although it fell in June), according to a major report published last year. The park is also warming up, according to the report.
And it can have consequences for wildlife (as well as humans). In the past, any 10-year period had some good years, some average years, and some bad years for wildlife, Smith said. And now? “We think the quotient of bad years is rising due to climate change,” he said.
So while wildlife is likely to remain resilient to this disaster, we must also recognize that resilience has its limits. The big problem for Yellowstone animals is not bad flooding. It is that there may be many more extreme weather events in the coming years.