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Project ID: 12-3-01-13

Year: 2012

Date Started: 09/01/2012

Date Completed: 05/26/2015

Title: Interactions Among Climate, Wildfire and Tree Regeneration at Lower Treeline in the Northern Rockies

Project Proposal Abstract: Forests of the U.S. Northern Rockies will likely become increasingly vulnerable to future changes in climate and wildfire. Bioclimatic vegetation models predict future contractions of tree species distributions in a warmer climate. However, the interactions among climate, fire, and vegetation change in structuring post-disturbance forests are poorly understood. Punctuated disturbance events, such as widespread, severe fires, may mediate climate in changing vegetation distributions by speeding the mortality of overstory trees. Where species are already moisture-limited, at lower treeline for example, increased evaporative demand under a warmer climate could result in a dramatic decrease in tree seedling recruitment, especially in severely burned areas. The proposed research directly addresses the JFSP topic area of climate change and fire by examining the role that large, and potentially more severe, wildfires play in altering spatial patterns of forest regeneration in a warming climate. This research will improve understanding of the ecological effects of climate change and fire and will quantify if and how burn severity may catalyze shifts in the location and composition of lower treeline under climate change. We propose to examine the relationships among climate, fire, and tree regeneration in Northern Rockies forests. We will sample across a gradient in effective moisture to understand how variability in climate manifests in changes to local microsite climatic conditions and whether these microclimate controls impact post-fire tree reestablishment at lower treeline. We hypothesize that widespread climate-driven wildfires will facilitate shifts in tree species distributions at lower treeline where post-fire climate and topography will largely determine moisture availability and limit post-fire recruitment of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. Our work will be conducted in lower treeline forests of Idaho and western Montana in fires that occurred during 1994, 2000, and 2007. We will collect data on seedling establishment using belt transects that are spatially stratified across burn severities and elevations. Understanding the interacting dynamics of disturbance and climate will help managers focus rehabilitation efforts following severe wildfires and improve predictions about future forest structure and fire regimes as vegetation changes in response to the compounding effects of climate and disturbance. These data will also inform regionally-specific predictions of climate change impacts on vegetation distributions and improve process-based dynamic vegetation models. The proposed work builds upon a larger project funded by a National Science Foundation Integrated Graduate Research and Education Traineeship focusing on the resilience of social and ecological systems in the Northern Rockies to changes in fire regimes, hydrology, and climate, a NSF-PIRE project focused on the climate and human impacts on fire regimes in the western U.S., and a NASA grant examining the long-term response of vegetation to extreme fire events. In addition to this interdisciplinary work, student collaborator Kerry Kemps dissertation research includes disciplinary research to understand what role climate and disturbance played in historical patterns of establishment in lower-treeline forests. Our results will be disseminated through field tours, informative flyers, webinars given through fire science delivery networks proposed for the Northern Rockies, teaching at the McCall Outdoor Science School, and a refereed journal publication.

Principal Investigator: Philip E. Higuera

Agency/Organization: University of Montana

Branch or Dept: College of Forestry & Conservation

Other Project Collaborators




Branch or Dept

Agreements Contact

Sarah S. Martonick

University of Idaho

Office of Sponsored Programs

Budget Contact

Sarah S. Martonick

University of Idaho

Office of Sponsored Programs

Student Investigator

Kerry B. Kemp

University of Idaho

College of Natural Resources

Project Locations

Fire Science Exchange Network

Northern Rockies






Interior West


Project Deliverables

Final Report view or print

("Results presented in JFSP Final Reports may not have been peer-reviewed and should be interpreted as tentative until published in a peer-reviewed source.")

  ID Type Title
view or print   7575 Field Demonstration/Tour Field trip to plots in Grays Creek Fire, Payette National Forest
    7576 Invited Paper/Presentation Post-Fire Tree Recruitment in the U.S. Northern Rockies: The Influence of Seed Source Proximity and
view or print   7577 Conference/Symposia/Workshop Post-Fire Tree Recruitment in the U.S. Northern Rockies: The Influence of Seed Source...
view or print   7578 Poster Research brief for National Forests in the Northern Rockies
    7295 Dataset (including spatial) Conifer seedling regeneration in 183 burned sites across the Northern Rockies
    7296 Field Demonstration/Tour Interfacing with local forest managers
  go to website 7297 Invited Paper/Presentation Lecture to University of Idaho FOR426: Fire Ecology and Management class
    7298 Conference/Symposia/Workshop Guest Speaker for the NWCSC Climate Change Bootcamp at the McCall Outdoor Science School
    7299 Conference/Symposia/Workshop Climate Change in the Northern Rockies: Multiscale forest and water resource vulnerability workshop
    7635 Invited Paper/Presentation Lecture to FOR 326: Fire Ecology and Management class at the University of Idaho
    7636 Invited Paper/Presentation Lecture to FOR 426: Fire Ecology and Management class at the University of Idaho
    7637 Invited Paper/Presentation Guest Instructor for the Wenatchee River Institute
    7638 Invited Paper/Presentation Guest Instructor for the Wenatchee Valley Technical Program
view or print   7626 Photo Above Hells Canyon, Nez Perce National Forest
view or print   7627 Photo Above the South Fork of the Salmon River, Payette National Forest, ID
view or print   7628 Photo Sampling in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness
view or print go to website 7625 Invited Paper/Presentation Webinar to the Northern Rockies Fire Science Network

Supporting Documents

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