Fire Severity and Tree Regeneration Following Bark Beetle Outbreaks: The Role of Outbreak Stage and Burning Conditions
The degree to which recent bark beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) outbreaks may influence fire severity and postfire tree regeneration is of heightened interest to resource managers throughout western North America, but empirical data on actual fire effects are lacking. Outcomes may depend on burning conditions (i.e., weather during fire), outbreak severity, or intervals between outbreaks and subsequent fire. We studied recent fires that burned through green‐attack/red‐stage (outbreaks <3 years before fire) and gray‐stage (outbreaks 3–15 years before fire) subalpine forests dominated by lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) in Greater Yellowstone, Wyoming, USA, to determine if fire severity was linked to prefire beetle outbreak severity and whether these two disturbances produced compound ecological effects on postfire tree regeneration. With field data from 143 postfire plots that burned under different conditions, we assessed canopy and surface fire severity, and postfire tree seedling density against prefire outbreak severity.
In the green‐attack/red stage, several canopy fire‐severity measures increased with prefire outbreak severity under moderate burning conditions. Under extreme conditions, few fire‐severity measures were related to prefire outbreak severity, and effect sizes were of marginal biological significance. The percentage of tree stems and basal area killed by fire increased with more green‐attack vs. red‐stage trees (i.e., the earliest stages of outbreak). In the gray stage, by contrast, most fire‐severity measures declined with increasing outbreak severity under moderate conditions, and fire severity was unrelated to outbreak severity under extreme burning conditions. Postfire lodgepole pine seedling regeneration was unrelated to prefire outbreak severity in either post‐outbreak stage, but increased with prefire serotiny. Results suggest bark beetle outbreaks can affect fire severity in subalpine forests under moderate burning conditions, but have little effect on fire severity under extreme burning conditions when most large wildfires occur in this system. Thus, beetle outbreak severity was moderately linked to fire severity, but the strength and direction of the linkage depended on both endogenous (outbreak stage) and exogenous (fire weather) factors. Closely timed beetle outbreak and fire did not impart compound effects on tree regeneration, suggesting the presence of a canopy seedbank may enhance resilience to their combined effects.
Harvey, B. J., Donato, D. C., Romme, W. H. and Turner, M. G. (2014), Fire severity and tree regeneration following bark beetle outbreaks: the role of outbreak stage and burning conditions. Ecological Applications, 24: 1608–1625. doi:10.1890/13-1851.1