Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Nebraska
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Roberts, C. P., Donovan, V. M., Wonkka, C. L., Powell, L. A., Allen, C. R., Angeler, D. G., Wedin, D. A., & Twidwell, D. (2019). Fire legacies in eastern ponderosa pine forests. Ecology and evolution, 9(4), 1869-1879.


Disturbance legacies structure communities and ecological memory, but due to increasing changes in disturbance regimes, it is becoming more difficult to characterize disturbance legacies or determine how long they persist. We sought to quantify the characteristics and persistence of material legacies (e.g., biotic residuals of disturbance) that arise from variation in fire severity in an eastern ponderosa pine forest in North America. We compared forest stand structure and understory woody plant and bird community composition and species richness across unburned, low‐, moderate‐, and high‐severity burn patches in a 27‐year‐old mixed‐severity wildfire that had received minimal post‐fire management. We identified distinct tree densities (high: 14.3 ± 7.4 trees per ha, moderate: 22.3 ± 12.6, low: 135.3 ± 57.1, unburned: 907.9 ± 246.2) and coarse woody debris cover (high: 8.5 ± 1.6% cover per 30 m transect, moderate: 4.3 ± 0.7, low: 2.3 ± 0.6, unburned: 1.0 ± 0.4) among burn severities. Understory woody plant communities differed between high‐severity patches, moderate‐ and low‐severity patches, and unburned patches (all p < 0.05). Bird communities differed between high‐ and moderate‐severity patches, low‐severity patches, and unburned patches (all p < 0.05). Bird species richness varied across burn severities: low‐severity patches had the highest (5.29 ± 1.44) and high‐severity patches had the lowest (2.87 ± 0.72). Understory woody plant richness was highest in unburned (5.93 ± 1.10) and high‐severity (5.07 ± 1.17) patches, and it was lower in moderate‐ (3.43 ± 1.17) and low‐severity (3.43 ± 1.06) patches. We show material fire legacies persisted decades after the mixed‐severity wildfire in eastern ponderosa forest, fostering distinct structures, communities, and species in burned versus unburned patches and across fire severities. At a patch scale, eastern and western ponderosa system responses to mixed‐severity fires were consistent.