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Tree resistance to drought and bark beetle-associated mortality following thinning and prescribed fire treatments

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Long-term trends show increased tree mortality over the last several decades, coinciding with above-average temperatures, high climatic water deficits, and bark beetle outbreaks. California’s recent unprecedented drought (2012–2016) highlights the need to evaluate whether thinning and prescribed fire can improve individual tree drought resistance and reduce bark beetle-associated mortality. Using a thinning and prescribed fire study on the Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest in the central Sierra Nevada implemented prior to the drought (2011–2013), we used dendrochronological methods to estimate metrics of tree vigor (i.e., growth and resin ducts) of sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana Douglas) and white fir (Abies lowiana [Gordon & Glend.] A. Murray bis) among treatments, as well as between trees that died from bark beetle-associated mortality and their paired counterparts that survived. We used tree vigor to estimate drought resistance as the ratio between growth during drought (2012–2016) and pre-drought (2007–2011) for both species. For sugar pine, we also created analogous ratios for multiple resin duct characteristics to evaluate defense during drought. Our findings indicate that lower competition increased growth resistance of white fir, while prescribed fire had negligible impacts on growth. This translated to lower mortality, with live white fir showing higher growth resistance than those that died. While competition did not strongly affect sugar pine growth, greater growth resistance was noted for trees that lived than trees that died. However, reduced competition and prescribed fire increased defense resistance and resin duct density and relative resin duct area were negatively associated with sugar pine mortality. Live sugar pine showed greater defense resistance than dead counterparts particularly under higher levels of competition. These findings suggest thinning can promote or maintain growth during severe drought conditions and prescribed fire can be applied with negligible costs to tree growth while also producing the additional benefit of stimulating defense systems in sugar pine, which may enable them to better survive bark beetle outbreaks. Therefore, susceptibility to bark beetle-associated mortality may be ameliorated through increasing tree vigor with a combination of forest thinning and prescribed fire.

A.A. Bernal; J.M. Kane; E.E. Knapp; H.S.J. Zald

Bernal AA, Kane JM, Knapp EE, Zald HSJ. Tree resistance to drought and bark beetle-associated mortality following thinning and prescribed fire treatments. Forest Ecology and Management [Internet]. 2023 ;530. Available from: