150 years ago Populus tremuloides was the predominant deciduous tree species on the Black Hills and the Rocky Mountain Complex. Aspen, the most widely distributed deciduous tree species on Earth, is critical to the survival of the Black Hills’ unique ecotones.
Beaver communities rely on aspen to slow runoff and store water supplies. Paha Sapa ("hills that are black" may have been a reference to burnt timber instead of the accepted, "seen from a distance") hasn’t been a natural forest since 1863 when a nearly Hills-wide fire (possibly set by humans hoping to clear pine), opened grazing for distinct historic ungulates. Aspen shoots are favorite browse for elk and bison. Brown and Sieg have noted at least 77 instances of human-induced wildfire on the pre-settlement Hills.
From the Missoulian:
"Researcher Christina Eisenberg’s work shows that before wolves were killed out, about one in every six aspen trees grew to reach the canopy. When wolves were absent, perhaps one in 300 made it. Aspen ecosystems are considered some of the finest and richest songbird habitat on the continent, second only to river-bottom riparian zones. Remove the wolf, and you remove the songbirds. Remove the songbirds, and the bugs move in. Everything changes, top to bottom, right down to the dirt."Dr. John Laundre’ from the blog of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation:
“Though one can reduce the number of less than 3 month old kittens orphaned by changing the season dates and trying to find those that are, there still will be small spotted kittens left out in the woods to starve to death. The public needs to know this. Also, by the calculations presented, 40 % of the females killed will have kittens between 3 months and 1 year old. Though there is a 71% survival rate (again one value from one study), this still means that out of the 20 females with these age kittens, 17 died of starvation and over 40 survived uneducated! These become the trouble makers, the ones who will go to human inhabited areas and eat pets or domestic stock, or attack people. Are we not exacerbating the dilemma of problem cougars (which some then use as an excuse to kill more)? I think that there can be an acceptable level of orphaning but the current management plan does not achieve it. Lastly, I would like to observe that many of the management strategies proposed here, if applied to ungulates, would be considered biologically unacceptable. For example, would the Department (SDGFP) propose that out of a bighorn sheep population of 160 adult (huntable animals), hunters could kill 40 of them, including females?? Would the Department allow the killing of does with spotted fawns? For that matter, would current game laws permit hunters to shoot deer, take their head and hide and leave the meat in the forest? I think these issues need to be addressed and the public be made aware of them if the all the public is to make sound decisions on the management of mountain lions.”
Mycologists report disruption in the fungal communities associated with aspen: the oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus, v. populinus, is in steep decline. The saprophytic mushrooms often associated with human consumption are the most important bioremediators of toxins presenting on the Forest. Morels fruit after fires in mixed pine/aspen habitat to entice animals to deposit organic material; bison and elk will crawl on their knees and loll their long tongues for morels growing under dead-fallen pine trees. The suppression of fire threatens that relationship, too.
The Forest Service manages about 1.25 million acres in the Hills, most of the other 5.5 million acres of the Black Hills hydrologic region are privately held lands whose owners largely blame forest failures on Federal or State mismanagement. Ponderosa pine draws water from deep sources in ore-bearing formations and transpires both water vapor and heavy metal oxides downwind, aspen stores more surface water. Pine needles absorb heat and shed snowmelt, aspen leaves reflect sunlight in summer and hold snowpacks.
There are signs of accidental success: the Grizzly Gulch Fire outside of Deadwood has yielded a very encouraging, very visible pine to aspen forestlands transition. Mount Rushmore and the Park Service have seen the data; they have the opportunity to lead by reducing pine stands, reintroducing fire, and saving their own aspen.
Connect the dots.
From the Rapid City Journal:“From a socio-economic perspective, the existence of so much private land has caused forest managers to fear fire, prompting even greater fire suppression and more commercial logging and thinning for fuels reduction and breaks. While this may make landowners feel more secure, these activities have not and will not maintain the natural processes that regulate the health and the vitality of this ponderosa pine forest. Unquestionably, private development has also contributed to the cultural loss and impoverishment of the Lakota Nation who claim the Black Hills under treaties broken by the U.S. Government.”
From Wildfire Today:“Across western North America, from Mexico to Alaska, forest die-off is occurring on an extraordinary scale, unprecedented in at least the last century-and-a-half — and perhaps much longer. All told, the Rocky Mountains in Canada and the United States have seen nearly 70,000 square miles of forest — an area the size of Washington state — die since 2000.”
From the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station:"Aspen could disappear from the North American continent by 2090."