Fire and Landscape Diversity in Subalpine Forests of Yellowstone National Park

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Ecological Monographs

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Fire history was determined by fire scar analysis in a subalpine watershed in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA. Evidence was found for 15 fires since 1600, of which 7 were manor fires that burned > 4 ha, destroyed the existing forest, and initiated secondary succession. Most of the upland forest area was burned by large, destructive fires in the middle and late 1700's. Fires since then have been small and have occurred at long intervals. Fire frequency in this area is partly controlled by changes in the fuel complex during succession. Fuels capable of supporting a crown fire usually do not develop until a stand is 300-400 yr old, and ignitions prior to that time usually extinguish naturally before covering more than a few hectares. Thereafter a destructive crown fires is likely whenever lightning ignites small fuels during warm, dry, windy weather. On the extensive subalpine plateaus of Yellowstone National Park there appears to be a natural fire cycle of 300-400 yr in which large areas burn during a short period., followed by a long, relatively fire-free period during which a highly flammable fuel complex again develops. The study area appears to be about midway between major fire events in this cycle. This, rather than human fire suppression, apparently is the major reason for the small number and size of fires in the area during the last 180 yr. On the basis of the fire history data, the sequence of vegetation mosaics during the last 200 yr was reconstructed for the watershed. Indices of landscape diversity were computed for each reconstruction, treating forest types and successional stages as taxa and incorporating components of richness, evenness, and patchiness. Landscape diversity was highest in the early 1800's following the large fires in the 1700's, then declined in the late 1800's during a 70—yr period when no major fires occurred and the landscape was dominated by even—aged forests developing on the areas burned in the 1700's. Landscape diversity has increased somewhat during the last half—century as a result of two small fires and the effects of the mountain pine beetle. These landscape reconstructions for the last 200 yr suggest that the Yellowstone subalpine ecosystem is a nonsteady—state system characterized by long—term, cyclic changes in landscape composition and diversity. Such cyclic patterns may significantly influence wildlife habitat, streamflow, nutrient cycling, and other ecological processes and characteristics within the Park, and they may be an important consideration in judging whether recent ecological changes are natural or man induced. The landscape reconstructions were also made using a simulation model based on hypothetical fire management policies of total fire exclusion and selective fire control (permitting only small fires to burn). These hypothetical management policies generally reduced the richness and patchiness of the landscape compared to the natural fire regime, but they increased the evenness and reduced the magnitude of periodic fluctuations in overall landscape diversity. At times, overall landscape diversity may actually be higher with a fire control policy than with a natural fire regime. At other times, fire significantly increases landscape diversity, as would be expected.