Effects of mountain pine beetle on elk habitat and nutrition in the Elkhorn Mountains of Montana
Cascaddan, Brent Morris
MetadataShow full item record
Mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae, MPB) outbreaks have become increasingly prevalent in western North America, resulting in ecological changes in pine forests that have important implications for wildlife populations and habitat. The potential effects of MPB-caused tree mortality on ungulate populations and habitat are relatively unstudied, and the possibility exists for both beneficial changes to ungulate habitat such as increased production of forage (i.e., forage availability) through the opening of the forest canopy and negative impacts such as accelerated phenology of herbaceous plants that may reduce forage quality. Using data collected during 2015 - 2017 in MPB-impacted National Forests in west-central Montana, I quantified the effects of MPB outbreaks on elk summer forage resources and use. To accomplish this objective, I 1) evaluated differences in herbaceous plant communities between mature uninfested lodgepole pine stands and two temporal classes of MPB-impacted forest stands (i.e., lodgepole pine cover classes: mature uninfested, old infested: > or = 10 years old, recent infested: <10 years old), 2) evaluated differences in elk summer forage availability and herbaceous vegetation quality, and 3) compared current elk use of lodgepole cover classes (2015 - 2017) to a previous elk telemetry study conducted during 1980 - 1991 before the MPB epidemic. I found that herbaceous forage plant communities did not differ in plant species composition but did differ in forage abundance in each cover class. Forage abundance was significantly different between cover classes and was highest in the old-infested cover class, and lowest in the mature uninfested cover class. The dominant phenology stage of forage species did not change across cover classes by a biologically meaningful amount, but herbaceous quality differed across cover classes, however the amount of difference was small. During the 2015 - 2017 study, elk used all three lodgepole pine cover classes in proportion to how much of each cover class was available. Elk use of lodgepole pine during the 1980 - 1991 study was approximately double what was estimated to be available and suggests elk are using the beetle-killed forest less than prior to infestation. My results indicate MPB does not negatively affect elk nutrition during later summer (July and August), and active management of beetle-killed forest is not necessary for the benefit of elk during this time period, but may be needed for improving elk habitat in other ways during other times of year.