Can Wildfire Save the Day? The Role of Wildfire and Topography in Shaping Aspen's Future in a Warmer World

Authors: Arianna Porter*, Colorado State University, Jason Sibold, Colorado State University
Topics: Biogeography
Keywords: Aspen, Management, Topography, Wildfire, Climate Change
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Muses, Sheraton, 8th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) is a keystone species in forest ecosystems across North America. Recent and projected decline in aspen extent due to climate change suggests that aspen will be lost from much of its current range this century. This is of significant concern and has prompted many land managers in Colorado to question the value of conservation of aspen stands. Whereas warming climate might mean loss of aspen in its current range, topographic influences (elevation and aspect) on moisture and growing season length could open opportunities for aspen expansion in new areas of the landscape. Furthermore, by clearing established vegetation and creating conditions for regeneration by aspen, wildfire may be a catalyst for this expansion. The goal of this project was to investigate if a high-severity wildfire in 2002 created opportunities for aspen expansion. To address these questions, we counted aspen stem densities in plots randomly stratified by pre-fire dominant life form, heat load index, and elevation. Our results indicate that the 2002 wildfire did create an opportunity for aspen to move into high-elevation, wet sties that it did not occupy prior to the fire . These results imply that the 2002 Hayman fire and complex topography are creating opportunities for range expansion, even though aspen might be lost in much of its historical range. Consequently, ecosystem management may be better focused on threats (i.e. ungulate herbivory) to aspen in areas of expansion instead of focusing on aspen restoration in areas where it may not be able to persist.

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