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Yellowstone National Park Report

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An unexpected consequence of the 1988 Yellowstone fires was the widespread establishment of seedlings of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) in the burned forests, including areas outside the previous range of aspen (Kay 1993; Romme et al. 1997). Although aspen is the most widely distributed tree species in North America (Powells 1965), it is relatively uncommon and localized in distribution within Yellowstone National Park (Despain 1991). Most aspen stands in Yellowstone are found in the lower elevation landscapes in the northern portion of the park, and the species was absent - prior to 1988 -- across most of the high plateaus that dominate the southern and central park area. Aspen in the Rocky Mountain region reproduces primarily by means of vegetative root sprouting. Although viable seeds are regularly produced, establishment of seedlings in the wild is apparently a rare event due to the limited tolerance of aspen seedlings for desiccation or competition (e.g., Pearson 1914; McDonough 1985). In the immediate aftermath of the 1988 Yellowstone fires, there was a brief "window of opportunity" for aspen seedling establishment, as a result of abundant aspen seed production, moist weather conditions in spring and summer, and bare mineral soil and reduced plant competition within extensive burned areas (Jelinski and Cheliak 1992; Romme et al. 1997). We initiated this 3-year study in 1996 to address four questions about the aspen seedlings now growing in burned areas across the Yellowstone Plateau: (1) What are the broad-scale patterns of distribution and abundance of aspen seedlings across the subalpine plateaus of Yellowstone National Park? (2) What is the morphology and population structure -- e.g., proportions of genets (genetic individuals that developed from a single seed) and ramets (vegetative root sprouts produced by a genet) of various ages - in aspen seedling populations? (3) What are the mechanisms leading to eventual persistence or extirpation of seedling populations along an elevational gradient, particularly with respect to ungulate browsing and plant competition? (4) What is the genetic diversity and relatedness of the seedling populations along gradients of elevation and substrate?