Comparing modern and presettlement forest dynamics of a subboreal wilderness: Does spruce budworm enhance fire risk?
Insect disturbance is often thought to increase fire risk through enhanced fuel loadings, particularly in coniferous forest ecosystems. Yet insect disturbances also affect successional pathways and landscape structure that interact with fire disturbances (and vice-versa) over longer time scales. We applied a landscape succession and disturbance model (LANDIS-II) to evaluate the relative strength of interactions between spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) outbreaks and fire disturbances in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in northern Minnesota (USA). Disturbance interactions were evaluated for two different scenarios: presettlement forests and fire regimes vs. contemporary forests and fire regimes. Forest composition under the contemporary scenario trended toward mixtures of deciduous species (primarily Betula papyriferaand Populus spp.) and shade-tolerant conifers (Picea mariana, Abies balsamea, Thuja occidentalis), with disturbances dominated by a combination of budworm defoliation and high-severity fires. The presettlement scenario retained comparatively more “big pines” (i.e., Pinus strobus, P. resinosa) and tamarack (L. laricina), and experienced less budworm disturbance and a comparatively less-severe fire regime. Spruce budworm disturbance decreased area burned and fire severity under both scenarios when averaged across the entire 300-year simulations. Contrary to past research, area burned and fire severity during outbreak decades were each similar to that observed in non-outbreak decades. Our analyses suggest budworm disturbances within forests of the BWCA have a comparatively weak effect on long-term forest composition due to a combination of characteristics. These include strict host specificity, fine-scaled patchiness created by defoliation damage, and advance regeneration of its primary host, balsam fir (A. balsamea) that allows its host to persist despite repeated disturbances. Understanding the nature of the three-way interaction between budworm, fire, and composition has important ramifications for both fire mitigation strategies and ecosystem restoration initiatives. We conclude that budworm disturbance can partially mitigate long-term future fire risk by periodically reducing live ladder fuel within the mixed forest types of the BWCA but will do little to reverse the compositional trends caused in part by reduced fire rotations.