Fire regimes of quaking aspen in the Mountain West

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Forest Ecology and Management







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Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) is the most widespread tree species in North America, and it is found throughout much of the Mountain West (MW) across a broad range of bioclimatic regions. Aspen typically regenerates asexually and prolifically after fire, and due to its seral status in many western conifer forests, aspen is often considered dependent upon disturbance for persistence. In many landscapes, historical evidence for post-fire aspen establishment is clear, and following extended fire-free periods senescing or declining aspen overstories sometimes lack adequate regeneration and are succeeding to conifers. However, aspen also forms relatively stable stands that contain little or no evidence of historical fire. In fact, aspen woodlands range from highly fire-dependent, seral communities to relatively stable, self-replacing, non-seral communities that do not require fire for persistence. Given the broad geographic distribution of aspen, fire regimes in these forests likely co-vary spatially with changing community composition, landscape setting, and climate, and temporally with land use and climate – but relatively few studies have explicitly focused on these important spatiotemporal variations. Here we reviewed the literature to summarize aspen fire regimes in the western US and highlight knowledge gaps. We found that only about one-fourth of the 46 research papers assessed for this review could be considered fire history studies (in which mean fire intervals were calculated), and all but one of these were based primarily on data from fire-scarred conifers. Nearly half of the studies reported at least some evidence of persistent aspen in the absence of fire. We also found that large portions of the MW have had little or no aspen fire history research. As a result of this review, we put forth a classification framework for aspen that is defined by key fire regime parameters (fire severity and probability), and that reflects underlying biophysical settings and correlated aspen functional types. We propose the following aspen fire regime types: (1) fire-independent, stable aspen; (2) fire-influenced, stable aspen; (3) fire-dependent, seral, conifer-aspen mix; (4) fire-dependent, seral, montane aspen-conifer; and (5) fire-dependent, seral, subalpine aspen-conifer. Closing research gaps and validating our proposed aspen fire regime classification will likely require additional site-specific research, enhanced dendrochronology techniques, charcoal and pollen record analysis, spatially-explicit modeling, and other techniques. We hope to encourage development of site-appropriate disturbance ecology characterizations, in order to aid efforts to manage and restore aspen communities and to diagnose key factors contributing to changes in aspen.