The Niobrara River Valley in north-central Nebraska supports scattered stands of paper birch (Betula papyrifera Marsh), a species more typical of boreal forests. These birch stands are considered to be relictual populations that have persisted since the end of the Wisconsin glaciation, when regional flora was more boreal in nature (Wright 1970, Kaul and others, 1988). Dieback of canopy-sized birch has been observed throughout the Niobrara Valley in recent years, although no onset dates are documented. The current dieback event probably started around or after the early 1980's. The study objectives were to understand microclimatic conditions in birch stands relative to nearby weather stations and historic weather conditions, and to assess current health conditions of individual birch trees. Temperature was measured every half-hour from June 2005 through October 2007 in 12 birch stands and individual birch tree health was measured as expressed by percent living canopy in these and 13 additional stands in spring 2006 and 2007. Birch site microclimate was compared to data from a National Weather Service station in Valentine, Nebraska, and to an automated weather station at The Nature Conservancy Niobrara Valley Preserve 24 kilometers north of Johnstown, Nebraska. Historic weather data from the Valentine station and another National Weather Service Station at Ainsworth, Nebraska, were used to reconstruct minimum and maximum temperature at The Nature Conservancy and one microclimate monitoring station using Kalman filtering and smoothing algorithms. Birch stand microclimate differed from local weather stations as well as among stands. Birch health was associated with annual minimum temperature regimes; those stands whose annual daily minimum temperature regimes were most like The Nature Conservancy station contained smaller proportions of living trees. Frequency of freeze/thaw conditions capable of inducing rootlet injury and subsequent crown dieback significantly have increased in the second one-half of the period of record (1978-2007) as compared to the first one-half (1948-1977). River location was associated with birch health; upper river sites had significantly healthier trees than north bank sites. Localized microclimates in the birch stands have likely facilitated the persistence of the birch populations in a region otherwise unsuitable for the species. These microclimate differences may reduce frequency of thaw/freeze conditions that can induce root injury and potential crown dieback. A large population decline in the context of increased frequency of potentially injurious climatic events would make population recovery much more difficult now than from 1948 to 1977, when thaw/freeze conditions were less frequent. These conditions, combined with little evidence of recruitment of young birch and great geographic distances from potential immigrant sources, make the future persistence of birch in the Niobrara River Valley stands uncertain.
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USGS Numbered Series
Paper Birch Decline in the Niobrara River Valley, Nebraska: Weather, Microclimate, and Birch Stand Conditions