Are density reduction treatments effective at managing for resistance or resilience to spruce beetle disturbance in the southern Rocky Mountains?

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While bark beetle disturbance is an inherent component of coniferous forest ecosystems throughout the northern hemisphere, associated tree mortality and ensuing changes in forest composition and structure may conflict with timber, wildlife, water and other resource management objectives. Therefore, host tree density reduction has been suggested as a management option to increase forest stand resistance to beetle infestation, protect remaining trees and maintain forest resources. However, little is known about the effectiveness of such treatments to mitigate spruce beetle (. Dendroctonus rufipennis) infestation or their influence on the stand structural controls of beetle disturbance in subalpine spruce-fir forests in the Rocky Mountains. We addressed this research gap in a retrospective assessment of the impact of density reduction treatments on stand composition and structure and subsequent (ca. 5-20. years later) spruce beetle infestation in southwestern Colorado. The study area was located at the fringe of an ongoing spruce beetle outbreak and at the time of sampling was affected by endemic to incipient beetle pressure. Stand structural attributes and beetle infestation were measured in treated and untreated control stands at four sites. Classification tree analyses revealed spruce diameter and its interaction with spruce basal area percentage as the most important drivers of tree-level beetle infestation. The number, basal area and proportions of beetle-infested spruce were lower in treated stands at sites where treatments significantly reduced the abundance of large spruce trees and where the abundance of large spruce was relatively high prior to tree removal. However, spruce density reduction did not result in a reduction of infestation rates in the remaining large (>25. cm DBH) spruce during the ongoing beetle outbreak. While confirming previous assessments on the limited effectiveness of density reduction treatments for mitigating stand-level beetle infestation, this study provides further insights on the stand structural controls that mediate forest management effects on beetle disturbance dynamics. We conclude by suggesting that priority should be given to management practices that enhance resilience by increasing spruce advance regeneration in the understory as opposed to treatments aimed at achieving resistance to beetle disturbance.

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Forest Ecology and Management

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Colorado Rocky Mountains, Dendroctonus rufipennis, forest management, Picea engelmannii, San Juan National Forest, stand structure