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Ecology, Ecosystems, & Environment

Science Spotlights

Potential changes in vegetation distribution in Yellowstone NP, Grand Teton NP, and adjacent Forest Service wilderness areas.
National parks, wilderness areas, and nature reserves were created to preserve a sample of pristine ecosystems, but even the most remote protected areas face serious threats from climate change. Managers would benefit from a better understanding how ecosystems within protected areas may respond to global warming.  
During and after fire
Each year wildland fires kill and injure trees on millions of forested hectares globally, causing both positive and negative impacts to plant and animal biodiversity, carbon storage, hydrologic processes, and ecosystem services. Understanding the underlying mechanisms of fire-caused tree mortality is important to accurately predict mortality, estimate fire-driven feedbacks to the global carbon cycle, extrapolate to novel future conditions, and...
A picture of open oak forest with grassland understory treated by fire in Missouri, showing greenery and trees (photo courtesy of C. Kinkead).
Although not presented in textbooks, open forests were the dominant historical forested ecosystems of the United States. Eastern and western oak forests and southeastern pine forests no longer occur at landscape scales. Management for open oak and pine forests will provide herbaceous habitat, critical to many declining bird and pollinator species.
Big sage mountain brush
An unprecedented conservation effort is underway across 11 Western states to address threats to sagebrush ecosystems and the many species that depend on them. Today, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior released the Science Framework for Conservation and Restoration of the Sagebrush Biome (Part 2). The Science Framework provides a transparent, ecologically responsible approach for making policy and management decisions...
Trailing edge forest Southern Rockies ecoregion
Forests are an incredibly important resource across the globe, yet they are threatened by climate change through stressors such as drought, insect outbreaks, and wildfire. Trailing edge forests—those areas expected to experience range contractions under a changing climate—are of concern because of the potential for abrupt conversion to non-forest. However, broad-scale forest die-off and range contraction in trailing edge forests are unlikely to...
Since the 1980s, it’s been assumed that forest soils require a long time to recover from a disturbance such as a timber harvest. The results of a 22-year monitoring study on the Kootenai National Forest counter this assumption. Certain types of forest soils showed a recovery within five to seven years following a timber harvest and subsequent fuels treatments.
Sheltered from wind and scorching heat, a seedling takes root in mature biological soil crust (photo by Neal Herbert, National Park Service).
Human activity has led to a global decline in biodiversity across all trophic levels, reducing the ability of ecosystems to maintain key functions. The loss of various species in an ecosystem has wide-reaching effects by reducing the numerous and often hidden species-species and species-environment interactions. These disruptions ultimately lead to changes and declines in the ecosystem’s functionality. 
Photo of a forest fire
The 20th Century was a period of enormous change for western forests. Fire used to maintain distinct forest vegetation communities – pine, dry mixed-conifer, mesic mixed-conifer, and spruce-fir – in close proximity to one another along steep vertical gradients in the topographically diverse forests of the American Southwest. How did these forests change in response to fire exclusion? In what ways and how rapidly? What are the consequences of...
Sampling streamwater in watersheds of the Hayman Fire
Severe wildfires remove vegetation and organic soil layers and expose watersheds to erosion which can transport large quantities of soil and ash to nearby rivers and streams. But once the burned areas have stabilized, do severe wildfires have any longer-lasting effects on watersheds or water quality? This study follows the Hayman Fire, 2002, Colorado, and shows that yes, there are long-term effects.
Male and female greater sage-grouse converge on sagebrush mating areas every year (Photo by Rick McEwan, Sage Grouse Initiative).
Every year, groups of the birds congregate at mating areas called “leks” — areas that are used every year unless they’re disrupted. Because of the location specific nature of their mating process, greater sage-grouse are particularly vulnerable to habitat disruption. 

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