Recent environmental changes inferred from the sediments of small lakes in Yellowstone's northern range

D. R. Engstrom, C. Whitlock, S. C. Fritz, H. E. Wright

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Recent sediments of eight small lakes in the northern winter range of Yellowstone National Park were cored to examine stratigraphic records of past changes in limnology and local environment that might be attributed to grazing and other activities of elk, bison, and other large ungulates. Cores of undisturbed sediment were analyzed at close intervals to depths covering the last 100-150 years according to chronologies established by lead-210 dating. Pollen analyses were made to show change in regional vegetation, and diatom and geochemical analyses were made to reveal possible limnological changes resulting from soil erosion and nutrient input from the lake catchments. Variations in sedimentary components prior to establishment of the Park in 1872 indicate some natural variability in environmental factors e.g., erosional inputs in landslide areas west of Gardiner. All lakes had abundant nutrient inputs. After the Park was founded, fire suppression may have been responsible for small increases in pollen percentages of various conifers and Artemisia tridentata (big sagebrush) at different times in different lakes. Perceptible decreases in pollen of willow, aspen, alder, and birch at different times may reflect local ungulate browsing, although drier climatic conditions may have been a factor as well. The most striking manifestation of accelerated erosion in a catchment was found at a lake located beside a road constructed in the 1930s. In contrast to changes at this site, the record of erosion at other lakes is hardly perceptible. Changes in sediment-accumulation rates seen at most sites result from redistribution of sediment within the lake after initial deposition. In the century following Park establishment, the abundance of planktonic diatoms relative to benthic taxa varies among lakes and may reflect differential nutrient inputs or changes in lake level. Four of the five lakes analyzed for diatoms show in the last few decades an increase in planktonic relative to benthic species, implying elevated nutrient inputs. The recent flora, however, is similar to that in pre-Park levels which suggests that these lakes have not been perturbed outside their normal range. Increased nutrient supply in recent decades for at least two of the lakes is supported by the geochemical data, which show an increase in biogenic silica and in organic matter. As a whole, our investigation of the sedimentary record does not support the hypothesis that ungulate grazing has had a strong direct or indirect effect on the vegetation and soil stability in the lake catchments or on the water quality of the lakes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)139-174
Number of pages36
JournalJournal of Paleolimnology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1991
Externally publishedYes


  • diatom stratigraphy
  • elk populations
  • erosion rates
  • lead-210 dating
  • paleoecology
  • paleolimnology
  • pollen analysis
  • range management
  • sediment geochemistry
  • ungulates
  • Yellowstone National Park

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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