Quantifying successional rates in western aspen woodlands: Current conditions, future predictions | Land Portal

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Date of publication: 
December 2009
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Stands of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) rank among the most biologically diverse plant communities across the intermountain region of western North America. Marked declines of aspen have occurred in recent decades, likely due to a combination of effects from changes in fire regimes, herbivory, climate (e.g. drought), and interspecific competition with conifer species. However, it is poorly understood how the effects of these factors are manifested at a landscape scale over decadal time periods. Analysis of field data combined with topographic information collected across the 500,000ha Owyhee Plateau in southwestern Idaho revealed that aspen in the area occur in three different biophysical settings; First, aspen stands exist at high altitudes on south-facing slopes where local conifer species are not likely to occur because of limiting temperature or precipitation levels under current climate conditions. In these areas aspen is the potential vegetation type rather than conifers. Second, aspen grow on anomalously wet microsites (e.g. near springs), and third, aspen grow within upland mixed aspen/conifer stands, which are experiencing rapid rates of conifer establishment. Based on a paired t-test (α =0.05) we conclude that stands growing on wet microsites show significantly slower successional rates of conifer establishment relative to upland aspen stands. We developed a conceptual state-and-transition model for upland aspen/conifer stands occurring across a range of topographic positions. We then parameterized the model using extensive field data in the vegetation dynamics computer simulation model Vegetation Dynamics Development Tool (VDDT), and examined the current and future aspen distribution under varying fire regimes. Model results indicate that average fire return intervals of 50-70 years are desirable for maintenance of aspen in upland areas where conifers are present. Under the current fire regime in the area many upland aspen/conifer stands will likely be lost within 80-200 years. Thresholds for the effect of conifer encroachment and browsing on aspen regeneration identified through this research are similar to those described by others across the West. We therefore suggest that the results presented for the Owyhee Plateau are likely applicable to semi-arid aspen woodlands across the American West where succession to conifers is a cause of aspen decline.

Authors and Publishers

Author(s), editor(s), contributor(s): 

Strand, Eva K.
Vierling, Lee A.
Bunting, Stephen C.
Gessler, Paul E.


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