Fire Severity Controlled Susceptibility to a 1940s Spruce Beetle Outbreak in Colorado, USA

Document Type


Journal/Book Title/Conference

Plos One

Publication Date






First Page



The frequency, magnitude, and size of forest disturbances are increasing globally. Much recent research has focused on how the occurrence of one disturbance may affect susceptibility to subsequent disturbances. While much has been learned about such linked disturbances, the strength of the interactions is likely to be contingent on the severity of disturbances as well as climatic conditions, both of which can affect disturbance intensity and tree resistance to disturbances. Subalpine forests in western Colorado were affected by extensive and severe wildfires in the late 19th century and an extensive and severe outbreak of spruce beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) in the 1940s. Previous research found that most, but not all, of the stands that burned and established following the late 19th century fires were not susceptible to the 1940s outbreak as beetles preferentially attack larger trees and stands in advanced stages of development. However, previous research also left open the possibility that some stands that burned and established following the 19th century fires may have been attacked during the 1940s outbreak. Understanding how strongly stand structure, as shaped by disturbances of varying severity, affected susceptibility to past outbreaks is important to provide a baseline for assessing the degree to which recent climate change may be relaxing the preferences of beetles for larger trees and for stands in latter stages of structural development and thereby changing the nature of linked disturbances. Here, dendroecological methods were used to study disturbance history and tree age of stands in the White River National Forest in Western Colorado that were identified in historical documents or remotely-sensed images as having burned in the 19th century and having been attacked by spruce beetle in the 1940s. Dendroecological reconstructions indicate that in young post-fire stands only old remnant trees that survived the otherwise stand-replacing fires were killed in the 1940s outbreak. No young post-fire trees (< ca. 128 years) were susceptible to the 1940s outbreak, implying that under the relatively cool and wet conditions of the mid-20th century, susceptibility to and spatial patterns of spruce beetle outbreak were most likely controlled by variations in severity of prior disturbance by fire. This study provides a baseline for comparing linked disturbances under the relatively warmer and drier conditions of recent (e.g. post-1990) outbreaks in order to assess how climate mitigates the degree to which pre-disturbance history and structure affect susceptibility to disturbances.