EFFECTS OF CONIFERS AND ELK BROWSING ON QUAKING ASPEN FORESTS IN THE CENTRAL ROCKY MOUNTAINS, USA

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Abstract

Elk browsing and conifer species mixing with aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) present current challenges to aspen forest management in the western United States. We evaluated the effects of conifers and elk browsing on quaking aspen stands in and near Rocky Mountain National Park using tree rings to reconstruct patterns of aspen establishment, growth, and mortality over the past 120 years. High conifer encroachment and elk browse were both associated with decreased aspen recruitment, with mean recruitment dropping over 30% from pure aspen to mixed stands and over 50% from low-browse to high-browse stands. Maximum aspen recruitment was lower in mixed stands than in pure stands with the same tree basal area. High levels of elk browsing were also associated with a 30% decrease in stand-level growth of aspen. Neither high conifer abundance nor elk browse affected the growth of individual trees or aspen mortality. Aspen establishment was negatively influenced by conifers and elk browsing; however, aspen growth and mortality appeared to be resilient to these two external influences. Overall, these results suggest that long-term preservation of aspen forests could be achieved by enhancing aspen recruitment.

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