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Data in support of: Mega-disturbances cause rapid decline of mature conifer forest habitat in California

Citation

Steel, Zachary et al. (2022), Data in support of: Mega-disturbances cause rapid decline of mature conifer forest habitat in California, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.6078/D1W43V

Abstract

Mature forests provide important wildlife habitat and support critical ecosystem functions globally. Within the dry conifer forests of the western United States, past management and fire exclusion have contributed to forest conditions susceptible to increasingly severe wildfire and drought. We evaluated declines in conifer forest cover in the southern Sierra Nevada of California during a decade of record disturbance by using spatially comprehensive forest structure estimates, wildfire perimeter data, and the eDaRT forest disturbance tracking algorithm. Primarily due to the combination of wildfires, drought, and drought-associated beetle epidemics, 30% of the region’s conifer forest extent transitioned to non-forest vegetation during 2011-2020. Fifty percent of mature forest habitat and 85% of high density mature forests either transitioned to lower density forest or non-forest vegetation types. California spotted owl Protected Activity Centers (PAC) experienced greater canopy cover decline (49% of 2011 cover) than non-PAC areas (42% decline). Areas with high initial canopy cover and without tall trees were most vulnerable to canopy cover declines, likely explaining the disproportionate declines of mature forest habitat and within PACs. Drought and beetle attack caused greater cumulative declines than areas where drought and wildfire mortality overlapped, and both types of natural disturbance far outpaced declines attributable to mechanical activities. Drought mortality that disproportionately affects large conifers is particularly problematic to mature forest specialist species reliant on large trees. However, patches of degraded forests within wildfire perimeters were larger with greater core area than those outside burned areas, and remnant forest habitats were more fragmented within burned perimeters than those affected by drought and beetle mortality alone. The percent of mature forest that survived and potentially benefited from lower severity wildfire increased over time as the total extent of mature forest declined. These areas provide some opportunity for improved resilience to future disturbances, but strategic management interventions are likely also necessary to mitigate worsening mega-disturbances. Remaining dry mature forest habitat in California may be susceptible to complete loss in the coming decades without a rapid transition from a conservation paradigm that attempts to maintain static conditions to one that manages for sustainable disturbance dynamics.

Funding

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Award: 8GG21823