Post-fire forest dynamics and climate variability affect spatial and temporal properties of spruce beetle outbreaks on a Sky Island mountain range

Christopher D. O'Connor, Ann M. Lynch, Donald A. Falk, Thomas W. Swetnam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


The spruce beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) is known for extensive outbreaks resulting in high spruce mortality, but several recent outbreaks in the western United States have been among the largest and most severe in the documentary record. In the Pinaleño Mountains of southeast Arizona, U.S.A., an outbreak in the mid-1990s resulted in 85% mortality of Engelmann spruce >7. cm diameter. To put this outbreak into historical perspective, we used dendrochronology to examine the effects of host species' distribution and growth rates on spruce beetle outbreak initiation, frequency and size over three centuries. We used multiproxy records of understory spruce growth release, snag death dates, failed attack scars, and historical records to identify 12 distinct outbreak events over a 319-year period of reconstruction. Outbreaks were defined by spatial criteria, affecting 25% or more of sites, instead of mortality-based criteria that could not be assessed in older outbreak events. We also tested outbreak associations with summer temperature and spring drought as they relate to thresholds associated with larval development and host stress, respectively. In the decades following fire exclusion in adjacent mixed-conifer forest, the area occupied by Engelmann spruce and corkbark fir doubled in size, coinciding with the first wide-spread outbreaks in the reconstructed period and a doubling of outbreak duration. Outbreaks lagged spruce establishment by 40-90. years depending on forest type and time since fire, and were correlated significantly with several years of antecedent warm summer temperatures followed by up to a decade of persistent spring drought. Mean annual growth increment, a factor associated with host susceptibility, was significantly higher in recently colonized mixed-conifer forest than in historically spruce- and fir-dominated sites. Increasing size and severity of outbreaks appears to have been influenced by host range expansion due to fire exclusion, coupled with increasing incidence of warm summer temperatures associated with persistent spring water stress. The combined effects of expansion of spruce into mixed-conifer forest and climatic trend toward warmer, drier conditions have the potential to promote extensive spruce beetle outbreaks across the host range of the western United States.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)148-162
Number of pages15
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - Jan 5 2015


  • Dendrochronology
  • Dendroctonus rufipennis
  • Drought
  • Fire exclusion
  • Mixed-conifer
  • Temperature

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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