Elk, fire and climate have influenced aspen populations in the Rocky Mountains, but mostly subjective studies have characterized these factors. A broad-scale perspective may shed new light on the status of aspen in the region. We collected field measurements of aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) patches encountered within 36 randomly located belt transects in 340 km2 of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, to quantify the aspen population. Aspen covered 5.6% of the area in the transects, much more than expected based on previously collected remotely sensed data. The distribution and structure of aspen patches were highly heterogeneous throughout the study area. Of the 123 aspen patches encountered in the 238 ha surveyed, all but one showed signs of elk browsing or had conifer species mixed with the aspen stems. No significant difference occurred in aspen basal area, density, regeneration, browsing of regeneration and patch size, between areas of concentrated elk use (elk winter range) and areas of dispersed elk use (elk summer range). Two-thirds of the aspen patches were mixed with conifer species. We concluded that the population of aspen in our study area is highly variable in structure and that, at a landscape-scale, evidence of elk browsing is widespread but evidence of aspen decline is not.
Additional publication details
Aspen structure and variability in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA