UNDERSTORY RESPONSE TO SHELTERWOOD AND BURN TREATMENTS IN A DRY QUERCUS FOREST IN INDIANA
Alterations to the historic fire regime have contributed to widespread regeneration failure in Quercus L. (oak) forests of the eastern United States. Composition has shifted from Quercus and other fire-adapted species to dominance by mesophytic species. While land managers often focus efforts on restoring Quercus regeneration, the herbaceous layer experiences reduced cover and diversity of herb and graminoid species resulting from the increased woody stem density in fire-suppressed forests. Declining abundance of Quercus species and diversity in the herbaceous layer reduce the overall habitat quality and ecosystem functions provided by the forest. A combination of overstory harvests and prescribed burning are often conducted to restore the plant community in Quercus forests affected by mesophication. Initiated in 2010, our study on the Hoosier National Forest in Indiana conducted shelterwood and midstory (mechanical, chemical, or none) harvests followed by prescribed burning on a less productive site, while leaving a more productive site unburned. Our objective was to evaluate the survival and competitive response of Quercus spp. within the regeneration layer and whether diversity and cover increased in the herbaceous layer following treatments. Using nested circular plots, we measured seedling survival and resprout response, in addition to regeneration density before and after treatments. We measured the percent cover of herbaceous-layer species within quadrats and calculated species richness, evenness, and diversity. Using multiple mixed-effects models, ANOVA, and NMDS ordination, we evaluated woody species regeneration and herbaceous-layer composition before and after treatments. Post-treatment, monitored Quercus spp. seedlings at the burned site displayed greater survival (> 94%) and resprouting (> 92% of monitored stems), which exceeded most competing species, including Acer spp. (~ 59% survival and resprouting) and Fraxinus americana (72% survival and resprouting). Q. alba seedling (< 3.8 cm DBH) densities doubled after burning; it was one of the most abundant species (9,864 stems ha-1) at the burned site. NMDS ordination indicated a clear shift in regeneration species composition with the burn driving a shift away from mesophytic species towards greater importance of Quercus species. Additionally, our burned site had significantly increased herbaceous-layer richness, Shannon diversity index, and total cover compared to pre-treatment. Percent cover increased across all plant functional groups within the herbaceous layer, with trees/shrubs exhibiting the greatest increase. Herbaceous-layer composition at the burned site significantly shifted toward greater importance of graminoids and herbs post-treatment. Post-treatment, the unburned site contained fewer, and less competitive, Quercus seedlings compared to non-Quercus competitors and displayed no significant compositional shifts in seedling species composition post-harvest. Our unburned site exhibited significant, but minor, increases in herbaceous-layer richness, evenness, diversity, and total cover. Herbaceous-layer composition at the unburned site was significantly different post-treatment, shifting towards greater importance of vines, trees/shrubs, and herbs. The more-productive unburned site would likely require multiple burns to produce adequate competitive Quercus seedlings to perpetuate dominance in the developing stand. Burning would also likely result in greater increases in herbaceous-layer diversity compared to harvesting alone. Conversely, the shelterwood, followed by a single burn, on the less productive site had a more substantial effect on the herbaceous layer, and likely produced an adequate density of Quercus reproduction to ensure future dominance by the genus.
- Master of Science
- Forestry and Natural Resources
- West Lafayette