Lack of recruitment and canopy replacement of aspen (Populus tremuloides) stands that grow on the edges of grasslands on the low-elevation elk (Cervus elaphus) winter range of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in Colorado have been a cause of concern for more than 70 years. We used a combination of traditional dendrochronology and genetic techniques as well as measuring the characteristics of regenerating and nonregenerating stands on the elk winter range to determine when and under what conditions and estimated elk densities these stands established and through what mechanisms they may regenerate. The period from 1975 to 1995 at low elevation on the east side had 80-95 percent fewer aspen stems than would be expected based on the trend from 1855 through 1965. The age structure of aspen in the park indicates that the interacting effects of fires, elk population changes, and livestock grazing had more-or-less consistent effects on aspen from 1855 to 1965. The lack of a significant change in aspen numbers in recent decades in the higher elevation and west side parts of the park supports the idea that the extensive effects of elk browsing have been more important in reducing aspen numbers than other factors. The genetic variation of aspen populations in RMNP is high at the molecular level. We expected to find that most patches of aspen in the park were composed of a single clone of genetically identical trees, but in fact just 7 percent of measured aspen patches consisted of a single clone. A large frequency of polyploid (triploid and tetraploid) genotypes were found on the low elevation, east-side elk winter range. Nonregenerating aspen stands on the winter range had greater annual offtake, shorter saplings, and lower density of mid-height (1.5-2.5 m) saplings than regenerating stands. Overwinter elk browsing, however, did not appear to inhibit the leader length of aspen saplings. The winter range aspen stands of RMNP appear to be highly resilient in the face of very intense herbivory by elk and harsh environmental conditions. Conservation efforts through fencing protection and decreased elk browsing pressure are already being planned as part of the park's new elk management plan. If these efforts are undertaken, conditions that encourage stem recruitment to the tree canopy will likely result and the continued survival of these aspen stands will be enhanced.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Aspen Ecology in Rocky Mountain National Park: Age Distribution, Genetics, and the Effects of Elk Herbivory