Post-fire aspen regeneration varies in response to winter precipitation

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This study examined post-fire aspen stands across a regional climate gradient spanning from the north-central Great Basin to the northeastern portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (USA). We investigated the influence of seasonal precipitation and temperature variables, snowpack, and site conditions (e.g. browsing levels, topography) on density of post-fire aspen regeneration (i.e. all small trees ha−1) and recruitment (i.e. small trees ≥2 m tall ha−1) across 15 fires that occurred between 2000 and 2009. The range of post-fire regeneration (2500–71,600 small trees ha−1) and recruitment (0–32,500 small trees ≥2 m ha−1) densities varied widely across plots. Linear mixed effects models demonstrated that both response variables increased primarily with early winter (Oct-Dec) precipitation during the ‘fire-regen period’ (i.e., fire year and five years after fire) relative to the 30-year mean. The 30-year mean of early winter precipitation and fire-regen period snowpack were also positively related to recruitment densities. Both response variables decreased with higher shrub cover, highlighting the importance of considering shrub competition in post-fire environments. Regeneration and recruitment densities were negatively related to proportion browsed aspen leaders and animal pellet densities (no./m2), respectively, indicating the influence of ungulate browsing even at the relatively low levels observed across sites. A post-hoc exploratory analysis suggests that deviation in early winter precipitation during the fire-regen period (relative to 30-year means) varied among sites along directional gradients, emphasizing the need to consider multiple spatiotemporal scales when investigating climate effects on post-fire successional dynamics.

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