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Research: Many MT Forests Not Coming Back After Fires

Researchers found one-third of forests in five western states, including Montana, haven't come back after forest fires over the last 30 years. (Jim Handcock/Flickr)
Researchers found one-third of forests in five western states, including Montana, haven't come back after forest fires over the last 30 years. (Jim Handcock/Flickr)
December 26, 2017

MISSOULA, Mont. – If climate change continues on its current trajectory, Montana forests are likely to look much different in the future, according to new analysis led by Colorado State University scientists.

Researchers looked at forests in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming after 52 wildfires over the past three decades, and found forests are losing their resilience because of the warming climate. In other words, the drier climate is hurting forests' chances of regrowing like they did before.

Phil Higuera is an associate professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana who worked on this study.

"The pattern that we document here - a lack of tree regeneration - this is exactly what we'd expect to see as conditions become warmer and drier,” Higuera said. "And indeed, the data indicate that the conditions have been warmer and drier over the last 15 years than in the prior 15 years."

One of the most troubling findings was that, in one-third of the areas studied, researchers found forests aren't coming back at all.

Higuera stressed researchers are not saying there won't be any more forests after wildfires in the future. But this analysis did find the proportion of forests that aren't coming back is going up.

On the bright side, Higuera said this report shows the glass is two-thirds full, so to speak. He hopes officials can use it to better manage forests going forward.

"An important thing moving forward is for us to help identify where we expect tree regeneration to occur naturally after wildfires, and where we expect either lower tree regeneration or complete failure in tree generation,” he said. "It's in those latter areas, if we want forests to come back there, that's where we need to be most proactive."

Higuera said the changing climate affected low-elevation forests more than high-elevation forests because conditions were drier there and harsher for seedlings.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT