Bayesian Predictions of Bark Beetle Attack and Mortality of Three Conifer Species During Epidemic and Endemic Population Stages


Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology

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Bark beetles naturally inhabit forests and can cause large-scale tree mortality when they reach epidemic population numbers. A recent epidemic (1990s–2010s), primarily driven by mountain pine beetles (Dendroctonus ponderosae), was a leading mortality agent in western United States forests. Predictive models of beetle populations and their impact on forests largely depend on host related parameters, such as stand age, basal area, and density. We hypothesized that bark beetle attack patterns are also dependent on inferred beetle population densities: large epidemic populations of beetles will preferentially attack large-diameter trees, and successfully kill them with overwhelming numbers. Conversely, small endemic beetle populations will opportunistically attack stressed and small trees. We tested this hypothesis using 12 years of repeated field observations of three dominant forest species (lodgepole pine Pinus contorta, Engelmann spruce Picea engelmannii, and subalpine fir Abies lasiocarpa) in subalpine forests of southeastern Wyoming paired with a Bayesian modeling approach. The models provide probabilistic predictions of beetle attack patterns that are free of assumptions required by frequentist models that are often violated in these data sets. Furthermore, we assessed seedling/sapling regeneration in response to overstory mortality and hypothesized that higher seedling/sapling establishment occurs in areas with highest overstory mortality because resources are freed from competing trees. Our results indicate that large-diameter trees were more likely to be attacked and killed by bark beetles than small-diameter trees during epidemic years for all species, but there was no shift toward preferentially attacking small-diameter trees in post-epidemic years. However, probabilities of bark beetle attack and mortality increased for small diameter lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce trees in post-epidemic years compared to epidemic years. We also show an increase in overall understory growth (graminoids, forbs, and shrubs) and seedling/sapling establishment in response to beetle-caused overstory mortality, especially in lodgepole pine dominated stands. Our observations provide evidence of the trajectories of attack and mortality as well as early forest regrowth of three common tree species during the transition from epidemic to post-epidemic stages of bark beetle populations in the field.

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Frontiers in Forests and Global Change



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