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Resilience and regime change in a southern Rocky Mountain ecosystem during the past 17 000 years

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Abstract

Paleoecological records indicate that subalpine forests in western North America have been resilient in response to multiple influences, including severe droughts, insect outbreaks, and widely varying fire regimes, over many millennia. One hypothesis for explaining this ecosystem resilience centers on the disruption of forest dynamics by frequent disturbance and climatic variability, and the resulting development of non-steady-state regimes dominated by early-successional conifers with broad climatic tolerances, such as lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia Engelm. ex Wats.). To evaluate this hypothesis, we independently reconstructed the vegetation, fire, and effective-moisture histories of a small, forested watershed at 2890 m elevation in southeastern Wyoming, USA, using sedimentary pollen and charcoal counts in conjunction with sedimentary lake-level indicators. The data indicate that prominent vegetation shifts (from sagebrush steppe to spruce–fir parkland at ca. 10.7 ka and spruce–fir parkland to pine-dominated forest at ca. 8.5 ka [ka stands for thousands of years before the present, defined as AD 1950]) coincided with changes in effective moisture. However, after lodgepole pine forests established at ca. 8.5 ka, similar hydroclimatic changes did not produce detectable vegetation responses. Fire history data show that other aspects of the ecosystem were responsive to changes in effective moisture at centennial timescales with prolonged fire-free episodes coinciding with periods of low effective moisture ca. 7.2–5.6 and 3.7–1.6 ka. Throughout our record, the ratio of ecosystem perturbation time (i.e., fire frequency and changes in effective moisture) to recovery time (assuming 200–600-year successional processes) falls within estimates of the ratio for non-steady state ecosystems. Frequent perturbations, therefore, may have prevented this ecosystem from reaching compositional equilibrium with the varied climatic conditions over the past 8.5 ka. Equilibrium states could have included more abundant spruce (Picea spp.) and fir (Abies spp.) than presently observed based on brief increases in pollen abundances of these taxa during prolonged dry, fire-free intervals. Our results show that, although current climate changes favor widespread disturbance in Rocky Mountain forests, the composition of these ecosystems could be highly resilient and recover through successional dynamics over the next few decades to centuries.

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