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Ecology, Ecosystems, & Environment

Science Spotlights

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. 
Cattle in the arid west. Photo by Keith Weller, USDA ARS from Bugwood.org
Forage availability for grazing animals has always been vulnerable to the effects of variations of weather and climate from year–to–year, with some years and decades markedly drier than others.
A closeup shot of a lynx face
The management of Canada lynx habitat is an issue that has generated much debate and litigation across the Northern (Montana, Idaho) and Southern (Colorado, Wyoming) Rocky Mountains. This species depends almost exclusively on snowshoe hare for food during winter, and this prey species is sensitive to changes in forest composition and structure. Research conducted by scientists at the Rocky Mountain Research Station, in collaboration with...
Standard wood stakes are used to evaluate wood decomposition rates within and among sites.
Maintaining woody debris on forest sites is critical for maintaining carbon stores and modeling the rate of decay helps managers understand tree growth and and carbon sequestration.
Whitebark pine sapling, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho
Forest inventory data show that more than half of all standing whitebark pine trees in the U.S. are dead. Regeneration of whitebark pine is widespread, especially in lodgepole pine stands, which suggests that active management of whitebark pine should target mixed-species stands to take advantage of natural regeneration. 
Photo of a fen with floating mat on the water. The mat has Carex limosa and Sphagnum mosses
Mountain fens (peat-accumulating wetlands) are groundwater-dependent habitats (i.e. groundwater dependent ecosystems) protected under the Clean Water Act and other federal mandates in the United States. There is increasing interest in documenting and monitoring the occurrence and characteristics of fens. In addition to supporting unusual plants, fens are sites of carbon and water storage and long-term ecological stability, since the underlying...

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