Nitrogen Cycling Following Mountain Pine Beetle Disturbance in Lodgepole Pine Forests of Greater Yellowstone

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Forest Ecology and Management

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Widespread bark beetle outbreaks are currently affecting multiple conifer forest types throughout western North America, yet many ecosystem-level consequences of this disturbance are poorly understood. We quantified the effect of mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) outbreak on nitrogen (N) cycling through litter, soil, and vegetation in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) forests of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (WY, USA) across a 0–30 year chronosequence of time-since-beetle disturbance. Recent (1–4 years) bark beetle disturbance increased total litter depth and N concentration in needle litter relative to undisturbed stands, and soils in recently disturbed stands were cooler with greater rates of net N mineralization and nitrification than undisturbed sites. Thirty years after beetle outbreak, needle litter N concentration remained elevated; however total litter N concentration, total litter mass, and soil N pools and fluxes were not different from undisturbed stands. Canopy N pool size declined 58% in recent outbreaks, and remained 48% lower than undisturbed in 30-year old outbreaks. Foliar N concentrations in unattacked lodgepole pine trees and an understory sedge were positively correlated with net N mineralization in soils across the chronosequence. Bark beetle disturbance altered N cycling through the litter, soil, and vegetation of lodgepole pine forests, but changes in soil N cycling were less severe than those observed following stand replacing fire. Several lines of evidence suggest the potential for N leaching is low following bark beetle disturbance in lodgepole pine.