Tree mortality following drought in the central and southern Sierra Nevada, California, U.S.
Publication date: 15 January 2019
Source: Forest Ecology and Management, Volume 432
Author(s): Christopher J. Fettig, Leif A. Mortenson, Beverly M. Bulaon, Patra B. Foulk
Much of California, U.S. experienced a severe drought in 2012–2015 inciting a large tree mortality event in the central and southern Sierra Nevada. We assessed causal agents and rates of tree mortality, and short-term impacts to forest structure and composition based on a network of 11.3-m fixed-radius plots installed within three elevation bands on the Eldorado, Stanislaus, Sierra and Sequoia National Forests (914–1219, 1219–1524 and 1524–1829 m on the Eldorado, Stanislaus, Sierra; 1219–1524, 1524–1829, and 1829–2134 m on the Sequoia), where tree mortality was most severe. About 48.9% of trees died between 2014 and 2017. Tree mortality ranged from 46.1 ± 3.3% on the Eldorado National Forest to 58.7 ± 3.7% on the Sierra National Forest. Significantly higher levels of tree mortality occurred in the low elevation band (60.4 ± 3.0%) compared to the high elevation band (46.1 ± 2.9%). Ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa Dougl. ex Laws., exhibited the highest levels of tree mortality (89.6%), with 39.4% of plots losing all P. ponderosa. Mortality of P. ponderosa was highest at the lowest elevations, concentrated in larger-diameter trees, and attributed primarily to colonization by western pine beetle, Dendroctonus brevicomis LeConte. About 89% of P. ponderosa in the three largest diameter classes were killed, representing loss of an important structural component of these forests with implications to wildlife species of conservation concern. Sugar pine, P. lambertiana Dougl., exhibited the second highest levels of tree mortality (48.1%). Mortality of P. lambertiana was concentrated in the mid-diameter classes and attributed primarily to colonization by mountain pine beetle, D. ponderosae Hopkins. White fir, Abies concolor (Gord. & Glend.) Lindl. ex Hildebr., and incense cedar, Calocedrus decurrens (Torr.) Florin, exhibited 26.3% and 23.2% mortality, respectively. Only one Quercus died. Tree mortality (numbers of trees killed) was positively correlated with tree density and slope. A time lag was observed between the occurrence of drought and the majority of tree mortality. Tree regeneration (seedlings and saplings) was dominated by C. decurrens and Quercus spp., representing a potential long-term shift in composition from forests that were dominated by P. ponderosa. About 22.2% of plots contained plant species considered invasive, including cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum L., ripgut brome, Bromus diandrus Roth, bull thistle, Cirsium vulgare (Savi) Ten., and yellow star-thistle, Centaura solstitalis L. The implications of these and other results to recovery and management of drought-impacted forests in the central and southern Sierra Nevada are discussed.
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