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Effects and etiology of sudden aspen decline in southwestern Colorado, USA

Worrall, James J., Marchetti, Suzanne B., Egeland, Leanne, Mask, Roy A., Eager, Thomas, Howell, Brian
Forest ecology and management 2010 v.260 no.5 pp. 638
forest decline, Populus tremuloides, forest health, dieback, tree mortality, disease severity, disease outbreaks, climatic factors, climate change, drought, precipitation, roots, forest regeneration, equations, tree crown, slope, landscape position, forest trees, etiology, dry environmental conditions, soil water regimes, aridic regimes, risk assessment, forest stands, root growth, soil water, risk factors, wet-dry cycles, Colorado
Sudden aspen decline (SAD), affecting Populus tremuloides, was first observed in Colorado in 2004. By 2008 it affected at least 220,000ha, an estimated 17% of the aspen cover type in the state. In southwestern Colorado, we examined site and stand features in paired healthy and damaged plots to assess the effects of SAD on aspen and to identify factors associated with decline. Root mortality increased significantly with recent crown loss. Consequently, density of regeneration did not increase as the overstory deteriorated, and regeneration that originated since 2002 decreased significantly in stands with moderate to severe SAD. However, mortality of regeneration did not increase with that of the overstory. Remeasurement of a subset of plots after 1-2 yrs showed significant increases in severity. Contrary to expectations, overstory age and diameter were not related to SAD severity as measured by recent crown loss or mortality. Severity of SAD was inversely, but weakly, related to basal area, stem slenderness, and site index, and positively related to upper slope positions. This is consistent with moisture stress as an underlying factor. To test the role of climate as an inciting factor for SAD, a landscape-scale climate model was used to compare moisture status of declining and healthy aspen at the height of the warm drought in water year 2002. Polygons identified as damaged aspen in the 2008 aerial survey had greater moisture deficits than healthy aspen in the 2002 water year. SAD has led to loss of aspen cover in some stands, and is occurring in areas where early loss of aspen due to climate change has been predicted. Further warm, dry growing seasons will likely lead to recurrence of SAD.