Fire & Climate
Warm summer temperatures and longer fire seasons are promoting larger, and in some cases, more fires that are severe in low- and mid-elevation, dry mixed-conifer forests of the Northern Rocky Mountains (NRM). Long-term historical fire conditions and human influence on past fire activity are not well understood for these topographically and biophysically heterogeneous forests. We developed reconstructions of millennial-scale fire activity, vegetation change, and human presence at Black Lake, a small closed-basin lake on the Flathead Indian Reservation in the Mission Valley, Northwestern Montana, United States. Fossil pollen, charcoal, and biomarkers associated with human presence were used to evaluate the interaction between climate variability, fire activity, vegetation change and human activity for the past 7000 years. Comparisons among multiple proxies suggest climate variability acted as the primary control on fire activity and vegetation change from the early Holocene until the late Holocene when records suggest fire activity and climate variability decoupled. Specific biomarkers (5β-stanols including coprostanol and epi-coprostanol) associated with human presence indicate humans were present within the Black Lake watershed for thousands of years, although the inferred intensity of human presence is highly variable. A strong relationship between climate variability and fire activity during the early and mid-Holocene weakens during the last few thousand years, suggesting possible increased influence of humans in mediating fire activity in recent millennia, and/or a shift in the interaction between the distribution and abundance of woody fuel and fire severity. Human-set fires during the cooler and wetter late Holocene may have been aimed at maintaining important cultural resources associated with the heterogeneous mosaic of mixed conifer forests within the Black Lake watershed. The paleoenvironmental reconstruction at Black Lake corroborates archeological records that show humans were present within the Black Lake watershed for over 7000 years. Further research is needed to evaluate the evidence for this continuous presence and the possible role that people played in shaping fire regimes and vegetation within low- to mid-elevation mixed-conifer ecosystems of the NRM.