Ecological - Second Order
In Rocky Mountain forests, fire can act as a mechanism of change in plant community composition if postfire conditions favor establishment of species other than those that dominated prefire tree communities. We sampled pre and postfire overstory and postfire understory species following recent (1988-2006) stand-replacing fires in Glacier National Park (GNP), Montana. We identified changes in relative density of tree species and groups of species (xerophytes vs. mesophytes and reseeders vs. resprouters) in early succession. Postfire tree seedling densities were adequate to maintain prefire forest structure, but relative densities among species were variously changed. Changes were directly related to individual species' response to severe fires. Most notably, relative density of the mesophytic resprouter quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and the xerophytic reseeder lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) increased substantially following fire, with a concomitant decline in proportional abundance of other tree species that, in some cases, dominated stands before fire. Trends identified in our study suggest that forest community shifts toward those dominated by lodgepole pine and quaking aspen are occurring in GNP. Cover of understory species was not affected by tree species composition or density. These forest communities will likely change throughout succession with the addition of shade-intolerant species in early seral stages and shade-tolerant species later in succession. However, with increased fire frequency, the lodgepole pine-dominated postfire communities observed in our study may become more common throughout time.