• The snowshoe hare filter to spruce establishment in boreal Alaska

      Olnes, Justin; Kielland, Knut; Ruess, Roger; Juday, Glenn; Genet, Helene; Mann, Daniel (2018-05)
      Interior Alaska is a heterogeneous landscape within the circumpolar boreal forest and is largely composed of black and white spruce (Picea mariana and P. glauca). Improving our understanding of the factors affecting patterns in spruce regeneration is particularly important because these factors ultimately contribute to shaping the boreal forest vegetation mosaic. Herbivory by snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) is one factor that likely drives patterns in spruce establishment. The interaction between spruce and snowshoe hares provides an opportunity to study how plant-herbivore interactions can affect succession, vegetation community composition, and consequently, how herbivory influences landscape heterogeneity. I explored how herbivory by snowshoe hares alters the survival and growth of spruce seedlings across Interior Alaska's boreal forest. I hypothesized that the survival and growth rate of regenerating spruce is significantly reduced by snowshoe hare herbivory and that snowshoe hare herbivory influences the pattern of spruce establishment across time and space. To address this hypothesis, I conducted research in three distinct vegetation communities across the region: productive lowland floodplains (Chapters 1 and 2), treeline (Chapters 3 and 4), and recently burned stands of black spruce (Chapter 5). Together these five chapters reveal that snowshoe hares affect spruce establishment across much of boreal Alaska. Where and when hares are abundant, spruce can be heavily browsed, resulting in suppressed seedling growth and increased seedling mortality. The results of these studies also reveal a consistent and predictable pattern in which this plant-herbivore interaction takes place. The snowshoe hare filter acts as a 'spatially aggregating force' to spruce establishment, where the potential for optimal regeneration is highest during periods of low hare abundance and where hares are absent from the landscape.