Fire & Wildlife
Mountain pine beetles
The spatial overlap of multiple ecological disturbances in close succession has the capacity to alter trajectories of ecosystem recovery. Widespread bark beetle outbreaks and wildfire have affected many forests in western North America in the past two decades in areas of important habitat for native ungulates. Bark beetle outbreaks prior to fire may deplete seed supply of the host species, and differences in fire‐related regeneration strategies among species may shift the species composition and structure of the initial forest trajectory. Subsequent browsing of postfire tree regeneration by large ungulates, such as elk (Cervus canadensis), may limit the capacity for regeneration to grow above the browse zone to form the next forest canopy. Five stand‐replacing wildfires burned ~60,000 ha of subalpine forest that had previously been affected by severe (>90% mortality) outbreaks of spruce beetle (SB, Dendroctonus rufipennis) in Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) in 2012–2013 in southwestern Colorado. Here we examine the drivers of variability in abundance of newly established conifer tree seedlings [spruce and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa)] and resprouts of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) following the short‐interval sequence of SB outbreaks and wildfire (2–8 yr between SB outbreak and fire) at sites where we previously reconstructed severities of SB and fire. We then examine the implications of ungulate browsing for forest recovery. We found that abundances of postfire spruce seedling establishment decreased substantially in areas of severe SB outbreak. Prolific aspen resprouting in stands with live aspen prior to fire will favor an initial postfire forest trajectory dominated by aspen. However, preferential browsing of postfire aspen resprouts by ungulates will likely slow the rate of canopy recovery but browsing is unlikely to alter the species composition of the future forest canopy. Collectively, our results show that SB outbreak prior to fire increases the vulnerability of spruce–fir forests to shifts in forest type (conifer to aspen) and physiognomic community type (conifer forest to non‐forest). By identifying where compounded disturbance interactions are likely to limit recovery of forests or tree species, our findings are useful for developing adaptive management strategies in the context of warming climate and shifting disturbance regimes.