Ecological - Second Order
Altered climate and changing fire regimes are synergistically impacting forest communities globally, resulting in deviations from historical norms and creation of novel successional dynamics. These changes are particularly important when considering the stability of a keystone species such as quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.), which contributes critical ecosystem services across its broad North American range. As a relatively drought intolerant species, projected changes of altered precipitation timing, amount, and type (e.g. snow or rain) may influence aspen response to fire, especially in moisture-limited and winter precipitation-dominated portions of its range. Aspen is generally considered an early-seral species that benefits from fire, but increases in fire activity across much of the western United States could affect the species in unpredictable ways. This study examined post-fire aspen stands across a regional climate gradient spanning from the north-central Great Basin to the northeastern portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (USA). We investigated the influence of seasonal precipitation and temperature variables, snowpack, and site conditions (e.g. browsing levels, topography) on density of post-fire aspen regeneration (i.e. all small trees ha−1) and recruitment (i.e. small trees ≥2 m tall ha−1) across 15 fires that occurred between 2000 and 2009. The range of post-fire regeneration (2500-71,600 small trees ha−1) and recruitment (0-32,500 small trees ≥2 m ha−1) densities varied widely across plots. Linear mixed effects models demonstrated that both response variables increased primarily with early winter (Oct-Dec) precipitation during the ‘fire-regen period’ (i.e., fire year and five years after fire) relative to the 30-year mean. The 30-year mean of early winter precipitation and fire-regen period snowpack were also positively related to recruitment densities. Both response variables decreased with higher shrub cover, highlighting the importance of considering shrub competition in post-fire environments. Regeneration and recruitment densities were negatively related to proportion browsed aspen leaders and animal pellet densities (no./m2), respectively, indicating the influence of ungulate browsing even at the relatively low levels observed across sites. A post-hoc exploratory analysis suggests that deviation in early winter precipitation during the fire-regen period (relative to 30-year means) varied among sites along directional gradients, emphasizing the need to consider multiple spatiotemporal scales when investigating climate effects on post-fire successional dynamics. We discuss our findings in terms of dynamic management and conservation strategies in light of changing fire regimes and climate conditions.