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Fire study shows landscapes such as Bitterroot's Sapphire Range too hot, dry to restore trees

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Valley Complex fire recovery

Burned landscapes like this drainage in the Sapphire Mountains hasn't been able to grow new trees since the Valley Complex fire of 2000, due to lack of soil moisture, humidity and seed trees, as well as excess heat during the growing season. University of Montana students Erika Berglund and Lacey Hankin helped gather samples for a study showing tree stands are getting replaced by grass and shrubs after fire across the western United States due to climate change.

Fire-scarred forests like the Sapphire Range of the Bitterroot Valley may become grasslands because the growing seasons have become too hot and dry, according to new research from the University of Montana.

“The drier aspects aren’t coming back, especially on north-facing slopes,” said Kim Davis, a UM landscape ecologist and lead investigator on the study. “It’s not soil sterilization. Other vegetation like grasses are re-sprouting. It’s too warm. There’s not enough moisture for the trees.”

Davis worked with landscape ecologist Solomon Dobrowski, fire paleoecologist Philip Higuera, biologist Anna Sala and geoscientist Marco Maneta at UM along with colleagues at the U.S. Forest Service and University of Colorado-Boulder to produce the study, which was released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

“What’s striking is if you asked scientists two decades ago how climate warming would play out, this is what they expected we’d see,” Higuera said. “And now we’re starting to see those predictions on the impact to ecosystems play out.”

The study concentrated on regrowth of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir seedlings in Montana, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and northern California. Field workers collected trees from 90 sites, including 40 in the northern Rocky Mountains, scattered within 33 wildfires that had occurred within the past 20 years.

“We did over 4,000 miles of road-tripping across the West, as well as lots of miles hiking and backpacking,” Davis said. The survey crews brought back everything from dead seedlings to 4-inch-diameter tree rings; nearly 3,000 samples in total. Then they analyzed how long each tree had been growing and what conditions had been when it sprouted.

Before the 1990s, the test sites had enough soil moisture, humidity and other factors to recruit new seedlings after forest fires, Dobrowski said.

“There used to be enough variability in seasonal conditions that seedlings could make it across these fixed thresholds,” Dobrowski said. “After the mid-‘90s, those windows have been closing more often. We’re worried we’ll lose these low-elevation forests to shrubs or grasslands. That’s what the evidence points to.”

After a fire, all kinds of grasses, shrubs and trees have a blank slate to recover. But trees, especially low-elevation species, need more soil moisture and humidity than their smaller plant cousins. Before the mid-90s, those good growing seasons rolled around every three to five years. The study shows such conditions have evaporated on virtually all sites since 2000.

“The six sites we looked at in the Bitterroots haven’t been above the summer humidity threshold since 1997,” Higuera said. “Soil moisture hasn’t crossed the threshold since 2009.”

The study overturns some common assumptions of post-fire recovery. Many historic analyses of mountain forests show the hillsides used to hold far fewer trees a century ago, and have become overstocked due to the efforts humans put at controlling fire in the woods. Higuera explained that some higher elevation forests are returning to their more sparse historical look due to increased fires.

“But at the lower fringes, those burn areas may transition to non-forest types,” Higuera said, “especially where climate conditions at the end of this century are different than what we had in the early 20th Century.”

The study also found that soil sterilization wasn’t a factor in tree regrowth, even in the most severely burned areas. For example, the 2000 Sula Complex of fires stripped forest cover in the southern end of the Bitterroot Valley. While the lodgepole pine stands near Lost Trail Pass have recovered, the lower-elevation Ponderosa pine and Douglas firs haven’t.

Another factor driving regeneration is the availability of surviving seed trees that can repopulate a burn zone. If one remains within 100 meters of the burned landscape, the area can at least start the process of reseeding. Unfortunately, the trend toward high-severity fires has reduced the once-common mosaic patterns that left some undamaged groves mixed into the burned areas.

Higuera said he hoped land managers could use small or prescribed fires to make landscapes more resilient, as well as restructure tree-planting efforts to boost the chances of heavily burned places.

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