Spruce beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) outbreaks are rapidly spreading throughout subalpine forests of the Rocky Mountains, raising concerns that altered fuel structures may increase the ecological severity of wildfires. Although many recent studies have found no conclusive link between beetle outbreaks and increased fire size or canopy mortality, few studies have addressed whether these combined disturbances produce compounded effects on short-term vegetation recovery. We tested for an effect of spruce beetle outbreak severity on vegetation recovery in the West Fork Complex fire in southwestern Colorado, USA, where much of the burn area had been affected by severe spruce beetle outbreaks in the decade prior to the fire. Vegetation recovery was assessed using the Landsat-derived Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) two years after the fire, which occurred in 2013. Beetle outbreak severity, defined as the basal area of beetle-killed trees within Landsat pixels, was estimated using vegetation index differences (dVIs) derived from pre-outbreak and post-outbreak Landsat images. Of the seven dVIs tested, the change in Normalized Difference Moisture Index (dNDMI) was most strongly correlated with field measurements of beetle-killed basal area (R2 = 0.66). dNDMI was included as an explanatory variable in sequential autoregressive (SAR) models of NDVI2015. Models also included pre-disturbance NDVI, topography, and weather conditions at the time of burning as covariates. SAR results showed a significant correlation between NDVI2015 and dNDMI, with more severe spruce beetle outbreaks corresponding to reduced post-fire vegetation cover. The correlation was stronger for models which were limited to locations in the red stage of outbreak (outbreak ≤ 5 years old at the time of fire) than for models of gray-stage locations (outbreak > 5 years old at the time of fire). These results indicate that vegetation recovery processes may be negatively impacted by severe spruce beetle outbreaks occurring within a decade of stand-replacing wildfire.
Carlson, Amanda R.; Sibold, Jason S.; Assal, Timothy J.; Negron, Jose F. 2017. Evidence of compounded disturbance effects on vegetation recovery following high-severity wildfire and spruce beetle outbreak. PLoS ONE. 12(8): e0181778.