Late Holocene vegetation and fire history in subalpine forests of northwestern Montana
Sly, Shelby Fulton
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Mid-to high- elevation forests of the Northern Rocky Mountains are dynamic systems that change in time in response to climate, disturbance and human activities. Climate models suggest these ecosystems will experience warmer temperatures, decreased spring snowpack, drier summers, and longer fire seasons, highlighting a need to better understand how these systems respond to changing climatic conditions. Sediment cores were extracted from two lakes in the Mission and Reservation Divide Mountains of Montana and analyzed for pollen and macroscopic charcoal to reconstruct fire and vegetation histories. The records from Mud Lake and Three Lakes Peak span the last 5400 and 4600 years respectively, and highlight the long-term persistence and relative stability of closed, mixed conifer/subalpine forests. During the mid-Holocene (approx. ca. 5000 yr BP), Pinus pollen percentages increased, suggesting closed forests which then transitioned to mesic forest of Pinus, Abies, and Picea over the last ca. 4000 years. Modern forests established between 3500-3000 cal yr BP at both sites. Both sites experience elevated fire activity during the Medieval Climate Anomaly c. 1000-900 cal yr BP which is consistent with other sites in the region. While relatively infrequent (2-4 fires per millennia), wildfires played a role in maintaining early successional vegetation (Poaeceae, Alnus spp.) and taxa that benefit from post-fire reduction in competition such as five-needle pines. Paleoenvironmental records from these two sites indicate subalpine forests of northwestern Montana persisted with relative stability throughout the mid to late-Holocene. With projections for increased warming, longer fire seasons and the possibility for increased occurance of short-interval fires in higher elevation ecosystems of the Northern Rocky Mountains, subalpine forests may become vulnerable to rapid transitions to different forest types or even non-forest systems.