, Volume 14, Issue 7, pp 1196–1215 | Cite as

Twenty Years After the 1988 Yellowstone Fires: Lessons About Disturbance and Ecosystems

  • William H. Romme
  • Mark S. Boyce
  • Robert Gresswell
  • Evelyn H. Merrill
  • G. Wayne Minshall
  • Cathy Whitlock
  • Monica G. Turner


The 1988 Yellowstone fires were among the first in what has proven to be an upsurge in large severe fires in the western USA during the past 20 years. At the time of the fires, little was known about the impacts of such a large severe disturbance because scientists had had few previous opportunities to study such an event. Ecologists predicted short- and long-term effects of the 1988 fires on vegetation, biogeochemistry, primary productivity, wildlife, and aquatic ecosystems based on scientific understanding of the time. Twenty-plus years of subsequent study allow these early predictions to be evaluated. Most of the original predictions were at least partially supported, but some predictions were refuted, others nuanced, and a few postfire phenomena were entirely unexpected. Post-1988 Yellowstone studies catalyzed advances in ecology focused on the importance of spatial and temporal heterogeneity, contingent influences, and multiple interacting drivers. Post-1988 research in Yellowstone also has changed public perceptions of fire as an ecological process and attitudes towards fire management. Looking ahead to projected climate change and more frequent large fires, the well-documented ecological responses to the 1988 Yellowstone fires provide a foundation for detecting and evaluating potential changes in fire regimes of temperate mountainous regions.


aquatic ecosystems Cervus elaphus climate disturbance elk fire landscape lodgepole pine paleoecology Pinus contorta stream invertebrates succession coarse wood 



The idea for this review came from the joint conference of the International Association of Wildland Fire and Yellowstone National Park’s 9th Biennial Scientific Conference held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2008. We thank Jessica Clement for valuable insights into the social dimensions of wildland fire management, and Brian Harvey for preparing the dNBR map of the 1988 Yellowstone fires (Figure 1). We also appreciate constructive comments on earlier versions of the manuscript from Steve Jackson, Dan Donato, and two anonymous reviewers. Research support for the information herein has been provided by numerous funding sources, including the National Park Service, National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, US Department of Agriculture, US Department of Energy, University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research Center, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Yellowstone Foundation, and Yellowstone Ecosystem Research Center.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • William H. Romme
    • 1
  • Mark S. Boyce
    • 2
  • Robert Gresswell
    • 3
  • Evelyn H. Merrill
    • 2
  • G. Wayne Minshall
    • 4
  • Cathy Whitlock
    • 5
  • Monica G. Turner
    • 6
  1. 1.Warner College of Natural ResourcesColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada
  3. 3.US Geological Survey, Northern Rocky Mountain Science CenterBozemanUSA
  4. 4.Stream Ecology CenterIdaho State UniversityPocatelloUSA
  5. 5.Department of Earth SciencesMontana State UniversityBozemanUSA
  6. 6.Department of ZoologyUniversity of WisconsinMadisonUSA

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