Effect of fire and thinning on fine-scale genetic structure and gene flow in fire-suppressed populations of sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana Dougl.)

Authors: Brandon M. Linda, Malcolm P. North, Patricia E. Maloney, Andrew J.Eckert

Historically, frequent, low-severity fires in dry western North American forests were a major driver of ecological patterns and processes, creating resilient ecosystems dominated by widely-spaced pine species. However, a century of fire-suppression has caused overcrowding, altering forest composition to shade-tolerant species, while increasing competition and leaving trees stressed and susceptible to pathogens, insects, and high-severity fire. Exacerbating the issue, fire incidence is expected to increase with changing climate, while fire season has been observed to begin earlier and last longer than historic trends. Forest thinning and prescribed fire have been identified as important management tools to mitigate these risks. Yet little is known of how thinning, fire, or their interaction affect contemporary evolutionary processes of constituent pine species that influence fitness and play an important role in the opportunity for selection and population persistence. We assessed the impact of widely used fuel reduction treatments on fine-scale gene flow on an ecologically important and historically dominant shade-intolerant pine species of the Sierra Nevada, Pinus lambertiana Dougl. Treatment prescription (no-thin-no-fire, thin-no-fire, and fire-and-thin) was found to differentially affect both fine-scale spatial and genetic structure as well as effective gene flow in this species. Specifically, the thin-no-fire prescription increases genetic structure (spatial autocorrelation of relatives) between adults and seedlings, while seed and pollen dispersal increase and decrease, respectively, as a function of increasing disturbance intensity. While these results may be specific to the stands at our study site, they indicate how assumptions relating to genetic effects based on spatial structure can be misleading (for instance, in many stands the presence or absence of spatial structure was not indicative the presence or absence of genetic structure). It is likely that these disequilibrated systems will continue to evolve on unknown evolutionary trajectories. The long-term impacts of management practices on reduced fitness from inbreeding depression should be continually monitored to ensure resilience to increasingly frequent and severe fire, drought, and pest stresses.

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