Forest Recovery Following Synchronous Outbreaks of Spruce and Western Balsam Bark Beetle is Slowed by Ungulate Browsing
Ecological Society of America
Understanding how severe disturbances and their interactions affect forests is key to projecting ecological change under a warming climate. Substantial increases in some biotic disturbances, such as bark beetle outbreaks, in temperate forest ecosystems may compromise recovery to a forest vegetation type (i.e., physiognomic recovery or resilience), especially if subsequent biotic disturbances (e.g., herbivory) alter recovery mechanisms. From 2005 to 2017, severe outbreaks (> 90% mortality) of spruce bark beetles (SB, Dendroctonus rufipennis ) affected Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii ) across 325,000 ha of spruce and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa ) forest in the southern Rocky Mountains, USA. Concurrently, an outbreak of western balsam bark beetle (WBBB, Dryocoetes confuses ) infested subalpine fir across at least 47,000 of these hectares. We explored the capacity of 105 stands affected by one or two bark beetle outbreaks and browsing of juvenile trees by ungulates to return to a forest vegetation type in the context of pre‐outbreak forest conditions and topography. Nine initial forest trajectories (i.e., at least several decades) were identified from four pre‐outbreak forest types affected by three biotic disturbances that occurred at different spatial scales and severities. Most stands (86%) contained surviving nonhost adult trees in the main canopy (fir and aspen [Populus tremuloides ]) and many surviving juveniles of all species, implying that they are currently on a trajectory for physiognomic recovery. Stands composed exclusively of large‐diameter spruce were affected by a severe SB outbreak and were most vulnerable to a transition to a low‐density forest, below regional stocking levels (< 370 trees/ha). Greater pre‐outbreak stand structural complexity and species diversity were key traits of stands with a higher potential for physiognomic recovery. However, all multispecies stands shifted in relative composition of the main canopy to nonhost species, suggesting low potential for compositional recovery over the next several decades. Most post‐outbreak stands (86%) exceeded regional stocking levels with trees taller than the browse zone (< 2 m). As such, ungulate browsing on over half of all juveniles will primarily affect the rate of infilling of the forest canopy and preferential browsing of more palatable species will influence the composition of the future forest canopy.
Andrus, R. A., Hart, S. J., and Veblen, T. T.. 2020. Forest recovery following synchronous outbreaks of spruce and western balsam bark beetle is slowed by ungulate browsing. Ecology 101(5):e02998. 10.1002/ecy.2998