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David K. Wright

David K. Wright
Forest and Woodland Ecosystems
800 East Beckwith Avenue
Missoula, MT 59801-5801
United States
Current Research

Forest management activities are many times believed to mimic natural disturbances. To study this, I investigated the effects of silvicultural treatments on plant community structure and composition in forests.  In the central Appalachian Mountains I found support for species composition succession theory with general increases of early successional species especially predominant on the more mesic sites.  Long-term forest management studies based in USDA Forest Service Experimental Forests in Montana, expanded my ecological understanding of forest systems.  I collaborated on studies that examined the effects of density management in western larch-mixed conifer forests (Schaedel et al. 2017) and alternative uneven-aged management strategies in high elevation, lodgepole pine forests (Hood et al. 2012, Keyes et al. 2014, Crotteau et al. 2016).  Outcomes of these studies showed that resource management of varying degrees of intensities creates a wide range of vegetation response, potential fire behavior, and stand and individual tree biomass accumulation.

Fire is the dominant disturbance in the Western forests and its frequency, intensity, and extent have been altered by forest management activities and climate change. Knowledge of historical fire activity across the landscape provides us with a better understanding of the role fire played in the development of Western forests.  At the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, working with Dr. Elaine Kennedy Sutherland on regional dendrochronological research projects we are determining the natural range of variability of fire frequency and extent.  The target is to determine if fire suppression activities in conjunction with climate change are pushing fire frequency and extent outside of the historical range of variation potentially exceeding the adaptive capacity of vegetation and the organisms that are dependent upon these forested systems.  Additionally, understanding the current distribution of forest fuels assists natural resource managers to develop more effective management plans.  At the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, working with researcher Roger Ottmar, I was part of national research projects that created illustrative biomass (fuel) estimation publications for land managers.  With these publications, resource managers are able to more effectively and efficiently estimate biomass and develop more accurate resource plans.

Ecological and policy based management sometimes conflict therefore I want to develop a more in-depth integration of forest vegetation and wildlife research. I am using my knowledge and background in forestry and wildlife to determine how past management activities effect long-term persistence of western larch and snowshoe hare in the Northern Rockies.  Gaps in knowledge about snowshoe hare ecology led to the establishment of strict management standards.  I am using an observational approach to examine the effects of initial and intermediate management activities (such as site preparation and pre-commercial thinning) on the relative presence of snowshoe hare.  Resource managers can use these results to apply science-based management activities that promote the continued persistence of western larch and snowshoe hare.

Research Interest

My main interest is to understand the role of natural and human induced disturbance in forests. People benefit from recreating in and using the natural resources provided by forests but what are the best actions that we can take to perpetuate healthy and viable forests?  This leads to my desire to better understand the mechanisms that underlie community structure, composition, and ecological dynamics of mixed conifer forests in response to climate change and management activities.  I accomplish this by implementing applied research studies in managed forest ecosystems.  The results from these studies provide more clues about how the many different parts of forest interact.  My research focuses on three areas: (1) silvicultural effects on forest plant community, composition and structure; (2) fire in western forests; and (3) vegetation management and wildlife habitat.

  • Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia, M.S., Forestry, 1998
  • Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, B.S., Wildlife Science, 1994
Professional Experience
  • Ecologist,  USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Missoula MT,  2005 - Current
  • Forester,  USDA Forest Service, PNW Research Station, Seattle WA,  1999 - 2005
Featured Publications
Other Publications
Research Highlights

Potential Fire Behavior Depends on Cutting Pattern in a Montana Lodgepole Pine Forest

Year: 2016
Forest Service researchers tested silvicultural treatments that can minimize the probability of severe wildfires and create resilient forests. They found that evenly spaced trees blew down easier; seedlings in lodgepole pine forets need to be included in fire behavior calculations because the added ...