Recovery after fire
Climate change is expected to cause widespread shifts in the distribution and abundance of plant species through direct impacts on mortality, regeneration, and survival. At landscape scales, climate impacts will be strongly mediated by disturbances, such as wildfire, which catalyze shifts in species distributions through widespread mortality and by shaping the post‐disturbance environment. We examined the potential for regional shifts in low‐elevation tree species in response to wildfire and climate warming in low‐elevation, dry mixed‐conifer forests of the northern Rocky Mountains, USA. We analyzed interactions among climate and wildfire on post‐fire tree seedling regeneration 5-13 yr post‐fire at 177 sites burned in 21 large wildfires during two years with widespread regional burning. We used generalized additive mixed models to quantify how the density of Douglas‐fir and ponderosa pine seedlings varied as a function of climate normals (30‐yr mean temperature, precipitation, soil moisture, and evapotranspiration) and fire (tree survivorship, burn severity, and seed source availability). Mean summer temperature was the most important predictor of post‐fire seedling densities for both ponderosa pine and Douglas‐fir. Seed availability was also important in determining Douglas‐fir regeneration. As mean summer temperature continues to increase, however, seed availability will become less important for determining post‐fire regeneration. Above a mean summer temperature of 17°C, Douglas‐fir regeneration is predicted to be minimal regardless of how close a seed source is to a site. The majority (82%) of our sampled sites are predicted to exceed a mean summer temperature of 17°C by mid‐century, suggesting significant declines in seedling densities and potential forest loss. Our results highlight mechanisms linking climate change to shifts in the distribution of two widely dominant tree species in western North America. Under a warming climate, we expect post‐fire tree regeneration in these low‐elevation forests to become increasingly unsuccessful. Such widespread regeneration failures would have important implications for ecosystem processes and forest resilience, particularly as wildfires increase in response to climate warming.