Effects of Fire and Spruce Beetle Outbreak Legacies on the Disturbance Regime of a Subalpine Forest in Colorado

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Journal of Biogeography

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Aim: There is increasing research attention being given to the role of interactions among natural disturbances in ecosystem processes. We studied the interactions between fire and spruce beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis Kirkby) disturbances in a Colorado sub- alpine forest. The central questions of this research were: (1) How does fire history influence stand susceptibility to beetle outbreak? And conversely, (2) How does prior occurrence of a beetle outbreak influence stand susceptibility to subsequent fire? Methods: We reconstructed the spatial disturbance history in a c. 4600 ha area by first identifying distinct patches in the landscape on aerial photographs. Then, in the field we determined the disturbance history of each patch by dating stand origin, fire scars, dates of mortality of dead trees, and releases on remnant trees. A geographical information system (GIS) was used to overlay disturbance by fire and spruce beetle. Results and main conclusions: The majority of stands in the study area arose following large, infrequent, severe fires occurring in c. 1700, 1796 and 1880. The study area was also affected by a severe spruce beetle outbreak in the 1940s and a subsequent low-severity fire. Stands that originated following stand-replacing fire in the late nineteenth century were less affected by the beetle outbreak than older stands. Following the beetle outbreak, stands less affected by the outbreak were more affected by low-severity fire than stands more severely affected by the outbreak. The reduced susceptibility to low-severity fire possibly resulted from increased moisture on the forest floor following beetle outbreak. The landscape mosaic of this subalpine forest was strongly influenced by the interactions between fire and insect disturbances.