Potential influence of wildfire in modulating climate-induced forest redistribution in a central Rocky Mountain landscape

Ecological Processes
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Abstract

Introduction

Climate change is expected to impose significant tension on the geographic distribution of tree species. Yet, tree species range shifts may be delayed by their long life spans, capacity to withstand long periods of physiological stress, and dispersal limitations. Wildfire could theoretically break this biological inertia by killing forest canopies and facilitating species redistribution under changing climate. We investigated the capacity of wildfire to modulate climate-induced tree redistribution across a montane landscape in the central Rocky Mountains under three climate scenarios (contemporary and two warmer future climates) and three wildfire scenarios (representing historical, suppressed, and future fire regimes).

Methods

Distributions of four common tree species were projected over 90 years by pairing a climate niche model with a forest landscape simulation model that simulates species dispersal, establishment, and mortality under alternative disturbance regimes and climate scenarios.

Results

Three species (Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, subalpine fir) declined in abundance over time, due to climate-driven contraction in area suitable for establishment, while one species (ponderosa pine) was unable to exploit climate-driven expansion of area suitable for establishment. Increased fire frequency accelerated declines in area occupied by Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, and subalpine fir, and it maintained local abundance but not range expansion of ponderosa pine.

Conclusions

Wildfire may play a larger role in eliminating these conifer species along trailing edges of their distributions than facilitating establishment along leading edges, in part due to dispersal limitations and interspecific competition, and future populations may increasingly depend on persistence in locations unfavorable for their establishment.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Potential influence of wildfire in modulating climate-induced forest redistribution in a central Rocky Mountain landscape
Series title Ecological Processes
DOI 10.1186/s13717-017-0073-9
Volume 6
Issue 7
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher Springer
Contributing office(s) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
Description 17 p.
First page 1
Last page 17
Country United States
State Idaho
Other Geospatial Rocky Mountains