Year of Publication
Standing dead tree stems (snags) become abundant following disturbances like bark beetle outbreaks and stand-replacing fire. Snags are an important element of wildlife habitat, and when they eventually fall can injure or damage people and infrastructure and contribute to coarse wood and fuels accumulation. While species-specific and general trends in snag persistence following disturbance have been well-studied, less attention has been paid to how these patterns vary across broad topographical gradients. We studied the ca. 250,000 ha of fire-killed snags created by the extensive and severe 1988 Yellowstone fires in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (Wyoming, USA) and asked: (1) What characteristics of individual tree stems contribute to the likelihood and mode of snag-fall? (2) How do snag-fall patterns vary across broad topographical gradients? In 2002 and 2003 (14–15 years postfire) we determined the abundance of standing snags vs. fallen stems to identify patterns of snag persistence in relation to stem characteristics and topography. In 2022 (34 years postfire), we sampled a separate set of plots to determine which, if any, trends identified 14–15 years postfire persisted for another two decades. Trends in snag persistence were species specific, with lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) stems less likely to remain standing than either Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca), subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), or whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis). Across all species, larger snags and those dead at the time of fire remained standing longer than smaller snags and those alive at the time of fire. The mode of snag-fall (uprooted vs. snapped) also varied with stem characteristics and species identity. Greater proportions of snags (all species and sizes combined) remained standing at higher elevations and on steeper slopes, likely driven by soils, stem allometry, decay rates, wind patterns, and pre-fire stand composition. As the extent and frequency of large, severe fires increases in western subalpine forests, understanding snag dynamics and the ecology and management of both standing and fallen snags is increasingly important.
Nathan G. Kiel, William H. Romme, Monica G. Turner. Snag-fall patterns following stand-replacing fire vary with stem characteristics and topography in subalpine forests of Greater Yellowstone, Forest Ecology and Management,Volume 549, 2023.