Subalpine Species Response to Past Climate Change and Fire Activity: Are We Underestimating the Biotic Resilience?

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 10:20 AM
Cathy L Whitlock, Virginia Iglesias and Teresa Krause, Montana State Univ, Bozeman, MT, United States
Climate-change impacts on species distributions will be especially complex in mountain systems with steep environmental gradients and heterogeneous landscapes. In the western US, projected climate conditions include rising temperatures, decreased snowpack, and increased moisture deficits, all of which will impact species distributions at high elevations. Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis; WBP) is a keystone species in subalpine environments and one that is highly vulnerable to projected climate trends. In the past two decades, WBP populations dramatically declined as a result of bark beetle infestation, blister rust, high-severity fires, and drought. Species-niche modeling used to map future WPB distributions is based on the relation between present-day occurrence and bioclimatic parameters. While these models capture the realized niche, the full niche space inferred from paleo-observations appears to be much larger. To assess a broad range of bioclimatic conditions for WPB, we examined its response to past changes in climate, fire activity, and species competition. General additive modeling of pollen/charcoal data from the Greater Yellowstone area indicate that WBP reached maximum population size and distribution ~12,000 -7500 years ago and declined thereafter. Population dynamics tracked variations in summer insolation, such that WBP was most abundant when summer temperatures and fire frequency were higher than at present. Competition from lodgepole pine after ~10,000 years ago limited WBP at middle elevations. Paleoecological data indicate that the fundamental WBP niche is considerably larger than assumed, and simulations that project the demise of WBP in the next 50 years are probably too dramatic given WPB’s ability to thrive under warm conditions and high fire activity in the past. Management strategies that reduce biotic competition and nonnative pathogens should help increase the future resilience of WBP and other subalpine species.