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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Ecol. Evol. | doi: 10.3389/fevo.2019.00436

Out of the Ashes: Effects of Extreme Wildfire, Prescribed Burns, and Indigenous Burning on Ecosystem Structure and Diversity

 Cristina Eisenberg1*, Christopher L. Anderson2, Adam Collingwood3,  Christopher J. Dunn4,  Garrett W. Meigs4, David E. Hibbs4, Robert Sissons3, Scott Murphy3,  Sierra D. Kuiper5, Julian Spearchief-Morris6, Leroy Little Bear7,  Curtis B. Edson2 and Barb Johnston3
  • 1Earthwatch Institute, United States
  • 2School of Forest Resource and Environmental Science, Michigan Technological University, United States
  • 3Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, United States
  • 4Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, College of Forestry, Oregon State University, United States
  • 5Waxman Strategies and Mighty Earth, United States
  • 6Kilpatrick Townsend & Morris, United States
  • 7University of Lethbridge, Canada

Until Euro-American colonization, Indigenous people used fire to modify eco-cultural systems, developing robust Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Since 1980, wildfire activity has increased due to fire-suppression and climate change. In 2017, in Waterton Lakes National Park, AB, the Kenow wildfire burned 19,303 ha, exhibiting extreme fire behavior. It affected forests and the Eskerine Complex, a native-grass prairie treated with prescribed burns since 2006 to reduce aspen (Populus tremuloides) encroachment linked to fire suppression and bison (Bison bison bison) extirpation. One-year post-fire, the Kenow wildfire caused vigorous aspen sprouting, altered stand structure to an early-seral state, and dominant land cover from grass to mineral soil. It did not change aspen-cover extent, or cause non-native grass eruption, but reduced native-grass diversity, and produced more pronounced shifts in ecosystem structure and biodiversity than the prescribed burns. The 2017 Kenow wildfire and prescribed burns differed in phenological timing, scale, and severity. Prescribed burns occurred in late spring, with little fuel available, while the Kenow wildfire occurred in late summer, with abundant fuel—amplifying the difference in severity. As in other climate-limited fire regimes, prescribed burns treatments did not mitigate the severity of the Kenow wildfire. To more effectively reduce the extent of aspen cover, future prescribed burns in this system could be applied in the late season. Incorporating TEK in adaptive co-management can help create more resilient ecosystems for fire and pervasive stressors such as invasive plants, provided one contextualizes current conditions and how they differ from historical conditions.

Keywords: fire, Prescribed Fire, Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), prairie, Bison, food webs, Colonization & extinction, Resiliency and adaptive strategies, Adaptive management approach

Received: 09 Dec 2018; Accepted: 25 Oct 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Eisenberg, Anderson, Collingwood, Dunn, Meigs, Hibbs, Sissons, Murphy, Kuiper, Spearchief-Morris, Little Bear, Edson and Johnston. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Cristina Eisenberg, Earthwatch Institute, Boston, Massachusetts, United States,