Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2016MT305B

Student Fellowship: Riparian Ecosystem Succession Following Fire Disturbance on the North Fork Flathead River, Montana

Institute: Montana
Year Established: 2016 Start Date: 2016-03-01 End Date: 2017-02-28
Total Federal Funds: $1,000 Total Non-Federal Funds: $450

Principal Investigators: Rachel Powers

Abstract: Forest ecosystem management has evolved in the last few decades from abstract concepts to functioning practices (Patry et al, 2013). In North America, the occurrence of natural fire disturbance on ecosystems has recently been accepted to have beneficial effects on long-term forest ecosystem health. In fact, restoration and conservation practices have incorporated fire as a management tool. Recently, prescribed burning has been proposed as a tool to tackle conifer encroachment in riparian habitats. This restoration practice has been tailored to an ecosystem’s unique mechanisms and post-fire disturbance behavior (Christensen,2014). In riparian ecosystems, the study of fire disturbance changes, or succession, is poorly understood in stream restoration projects. Because of current limitations of knowledge, and the inevitability that fire management will continue in forest ecosystems, broadly based research on riparian fire disturbance regimes is required to design strategies for sustainable streamside management (Bisson et al, 2003). The North Fork of the Flathead River in Montana near the Canada-US border provides the North American hydrographic apex with headwater streams flowing to the Pacific Ocean, Hudson Bay and Gulf of Mexico. The area contains numerous national parks and protected areas with relatively untouched watersheds (Rood et al, 2005). This region has experienced several large scale wildfires in the past decades, altering the fluvial geomorphology of the North Fork and its tributaries, as well as the surrounding landscape. The Red Bench Fire burned 38,000 acres of national park, national forest, and private land near Polebridge, MT in September 1988. Historically, fire has been relatively infrequent along most areas of the North Fork. The fire regime, determined from stands dominated by lodgepole pine, is measured to be over 100-year intervals. There have been recent exceptions. Stand replacing fires burned in 1967 and 1988 (Red Bench Fire) are considered to be resultant of prolonged drought conditions. I plan on studying the vegetation and geomorphological effects of fire on the North Fork as it relates to resilience of future fire regime standards and management.