Historical dominance of low-severity fire in dry and wet mixed-conifer forest habitats of the endangered terrestrial Jemez Mountains salamander (Plethodon neomexicanus)

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Journal Article




Margolis, E.Q. and S.B. Malevich

Suggested Citation: 

Margolis, E.Q. and S.B. Malevich. 2016. Historical dominance of low-severity fire in dry and wet mixed-conifer forest habitats of the endemic terrestrial Jemez Mountains salamander (Plethodon neomexicanus). Forest Ecology and Management 375:12-26. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2016.05.011

Anthropogenic alteration of ecosystem processes confounds forest management and conservation of rare, declining species. Restoration of forest structure and fire hazard reduction are central goals of forest management policy in the western United States, but restoration priorities and treatments have become increasingly contentious. Numerous studies have documented changes in fire regimes, forest stand structure and species composition following a century of fire exclusion in dry, frequent-fire forests of the western U.S. (e.g., ponderosa pine and dry mixed-conifer). In contrast, wet mixed-conifer forests are thought to have historically burned infrequently with mixed- or high-severity fire—resulting in reduced impacts from fire exclusion and low restoration need—but data are limited. In this study we quantified the current forest habitat of the federally endangered, terrestrial Jemez Mountains salamander (Plethodon neomexicanus) and compared it to dendroecological reconstructions of historical habitat (e.g., stand structure and composition), and fire regime parameters along a gradient from upper ponderosa pine to wet mixed-conifer forests. We found that current fire-free intervals in Jemez Mountains salamander habitat (116–165 years) are significantly longer than historical intervals, even in wet mixed-conifer forests. Historical mean fire intervals ranged from 10 to 42 years along the forest gradient. Low-severity fires were historically dominant across all forest types (92 of 102 fires). Although some mixed- or highseverity fire historically occurred at 67% of the plots over the last four centuries, complete mortality within 1.0 ha plots was rare, and asynchronous within and among sites. Climate was an important driver of temporal variability in fire severity, such that mixed- and high-severity fires were associated with more extreme drought than low-severity fires. Tree density in dry conifer forests historically ranged from open (90 trees/ha) to moderately dense (400 trees/ha), but has doubled on average since fire exclusion. Infill of fire-sensitive tree species has contributed to the conversion of historically dry mixedconifer to wet mixed-conifer forest. We conclude that low-severity fire, which has been absent for over a century, was a critical ecosystem process across the forest gradient in Jemez Mountains salamander habitat, and thus is an important element of ecosystem restoration, resilience, and rare species recovery.

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