Seeing the Forest and the Trees
Expansive, conifer forests dominate much of the mid and high elevation mountain ranges of the American West. These forests are home to a wide range of wildlife and provide critical habitat for many species from insects to birds to mammals. Many people pass through these mountain wildlands during their travels or spend some time there enjoying nature by hiking, fishing, skiing, or camping. Because of the rugged topography and vast expanses, people often don’t think of these forests as being at risk to degradation.
Unfortunately, this is not the case as these forests face many threats, including rapidly changing climates, intense grazing by livestock, and unusually high densities of wild elk, insect outbreaks, and intense, frequent wildfires.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest are in various stages of recovery from past disturbances, while other areas remain at-risk to future degradation. This creates an enormous challenge for land managers who are trying to develop ways to conserve and manage these beautiful and complicated forest ecosystems. This is especially difficult, because we are still trying to understand how these ecosystems work.
Scientists here at the Institute for Conservation Research are collaborating with the Pacific Northwest Research Station, Oregon State University and others to better understand how these forests respond to different types of disturbances.
For example, we have just completed a 10-year study looking at how different grazing intensities by domestic cattle and Rocky Mountain elk affect forest regeneration following fire.
This work involves documenting what plant species cattle and elk prefer to eat and what species they avoid, while at the same time monitoring forest regeneration following fire in forest plots with different densities of cattle and elk. This type of research is complicated and involves a lot of coordination and teamwork. Combining all the data will help us understand and predict the importance of herbivory on forest regeneration.
This is important because heavy utilization by cattle and elk may affect vegetation structure and composition, which in turn affects other wildlife as nesting sites, food sources, and habitat cover are lost. Trying to understand connections and interactions between plants and animals will help us make informed management decisions as we seek to maintain and conserve the natural resources and biodiversity of these beautiful forest ecosystems.
Bryan Endress, Ph.D., Director Applied Plant Ecology, San Diego Zoo Global