Assessing the Impacts of Balsam Woolly Adelgid (Adelges Piceae Ratz.) and Anthropogenic Disturbance on the Stand Structure and Mortality of Fraser Fir (Abies Fraseri (Pursh) Poir.) in the Black Mountains, North Carolina
Over the past several decades, naturally occurring populations of Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) in the Black Mountains of North Carolina have been heavily impacted by both direct and indirect anthropogenic disturbances, including logging and logging- associated fires, and high mortality rates due to the introduction of the exotic insect, balsam woolly adelgid (BWA) (Adelges piceae). The decline in Fraser fir is particularly concern because it serves as a foundation species within the spruce-fir forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Our objectives for this research were to 1) use current stand structure to infer whether Fraser fir trees are experiencing a cycle of regeneration-mortality that will lead to eventual decline of the population, 2) determine what role, if any, the site-specific geographic variables of slope, elevation, aspect, and land use history have on stand structure, mortality, and BWA infestation level, and 3) analyze repeat aerial photography to examine broad trends of spruce-fir forest cover change caused by anthropogenic disturbance and the BWA. In order to understand stand structure, mortality, and infestation levels, we conducted detailed field surveys of Fraser fir trees throughout the Black Mountains using 44, fixed-radius circular sampling plots. These plots were placed throughout a series of aspects, elevations, and disturbance types in order to understand geographic variability among these variables. An analysis of 4 repeat aerial photographs and corroborating ground photographs revealed broad spatio-temporal trends of spruce-fir regeneration and mortality from 1954 to 2006. Our results indicate that Fraser fir stands at higher elevations are currently in a state of recovery; whereas stands at lower elevations appear to be more susceptible to BWA-induced mortality. Changes in forest cover area from 1954 to 2006 were influenced greatly by direct and indirect anthropogenic disturbance. Our results call attention to the significant impact that direct and indirect anthropogenic disturbance has had on Fraser fir stand structure, but also provide evidence for the ability of an imperiled ecosystem to recover from high rates of insect caused mortality.