Fire is a critical ecosystem process that has played a key role in shaping forests throughout the Beartooth Mountains in northwestern Wyoming. The highly variable topography of the area provides ideal conditions to compare fire regimes across contiguous forest types, yet pyro-dendrochronological research in this area is limited. We reconstructed fire frequency, tree age structure, and post-fire tree growth response in the Clarks Fork Ranger District of the Shoshone National Forest to infer variations in historical fire behavior and stand effects. We collected fire-scarred trees and plot-based tree ages on plots ranging 0.5-5 km2 in size across two forest types separated by 2 km: a lower-elevation forest of mixed Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine and a higher elevation treeline forest dominated by whitebark pine. Fires occurred in the lower-elevation forest in 1664, 1706, 1785, 1804, 1846, and 1900 with a mean fire return interval of 47 years. The fires in 1804 and 1900 were also recorded in the higher elevation forest, with significant tree mortality at high elevation in the 1900 fire. Both forests were multi-aged with little evidence of tree cohorts in response to severe, stand-replacing events. On average, tree growth increased after fires, with mean ring widths after fire 39% wider in Douglas-fir and 40% wider in lodgepole pine than pre-fire averages, suggesting that some tree mortality likely occurred in association with lower-elevation forest fires. Burns were more frequent in the lower-elevation forest and were occasionally able to spread into the upper-elevation whitebark stand. Although we suspect the transition of fires from low-to high-elevation occurred during drier years, we did not find any relationship between fire years and available climatic reconstructions via superposed epoch analysis. Regeneration during the 20th Century in the whitebark forest documents recovery of this forest after the 1900 moderate-severity fire event. Finally, especially in the lower-elevation Douglas-fir forest, the period since the last recorded fire (1900) appears to be longer than any fire-free period in the historical record, suggesting that fire exclusion may be creating changes in landscape and patch-scale stand structures, which will likely impact future fire behavior, especially the extent of crown-replacing fire, in these forests.
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Vol. 76 • No. 1