Early response of ground layer plant communities to wildfire and harvesting disturbance in forested peatland ecosystems in northern Minnesota, USA
A rare, stand-replacing fire in northern Minnesota, USA provided the opportunity to compare the effects of wildfire and timber harvesting in two peatland forest communities, nutrient-poor black spruce (Picea mariana) bogs (BSB) and nutrient-rich tamarack (Larix laricina) swamps (RTS). We found the response between the two communities and their corresponding vegetation to be highly sensitive to different types and severity of disturbance, ranging from modest shifts in ground layer vascular plants and bryophyte species abundance, to wholesale plant community transformation resulting from the removal of the upper peat surface. Fire had a positive influence on black spruce regeneration within BSB sites, particularly areas experiencing lower levels of fire severity, with seedling densities significantly higher than harvest and control areas. Our results also suggest that ecosystem recovery will be rapid after lowseverity fire in these areas, given that localized areas of peat combustion created suitable microsites for black spruce seedling establishment ensuring this species will remain a component of the post-fire communities. In contrast, tamarack regeneration was only documented in harvested RTS sites. For BSB, there was spatial heterogeneity in peat consumption as a result of fire behavior interacting with varying moisture conditions throughout peat hummocks and hollows. Light to moderate burning created suitable black spruce seedbeds by reducing cover of Sphagnum moss and the dominant ericaceous shrub Rhododendron groenlandicum, and increasing the cover of pioneering mosses, such as Polytrichum strictum. In RTS sites, fire typically consumed the entire upper peat surface, resulting in homogenization of community composition and retrogression towards marsh-like conditions dominated by cattails (Typha spp.). These findings underscore the importance of accounting for post-fire microsite heterogeneity when developing silvicultural systems for emulating natural disturbance processes in conifer forests with a naturally accumulated surface peat layer. In addition, the state shifts observed in areas experiencing high severity fire suggest that increases in fire frequency and severity may create significant challenges to maintaining forested conditions in these areas, particularly in RTS.