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What is killing the aspen trees in our forests?
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This is an excellent question and one that researchers are still trying to answer. It is estimated conservatively that about 10% of the aspen trees are dying or in decline—a number that is staggering and a cause for concern. And this is not just
Researchers admit that there is certainly no one causal factor in the aspen decline. Many theories have been raised, including several years of drought combined with heat, cytospora canker, and poplar borer. Over-browsing by elk and cattle may also be a contributing factor. Another theory is based on our land use history. Widespread timber harvesting and wildfires in the late 1800s and early 1900s allowed aspen—which is a colonizer and depends upon disturbance—to grow in wider swaths than ever before. The reduction in landscape disturbance starting in the 1920s, including fire suppression, is simply causing natural succession to speed up, and hence a decline in early-successional species such as aspen.
As research continues, forest managers will certainly adapt their practices to allow for restoration of the aspen—a tree species that symbolizes the “wild west.”
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