Black Hills forests

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Jess Riddle
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Black Hills forests

Post by Jess Riddle » Fri Dec 06, 2013 7:18 pm

NTS,

The Black Hills are black as pine. Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum) covers the mountains from low elevations to high elevations, from north facing slopes to south facing slopes, from streamside to ridge-top. This island of piney forest rises out of a vast prairie sea, now used as rangeland, thanks to the rainfall induced by the mountains’ base 3000 foot base to summit rise.
Ponderosa pine covered slope.  Hardwoods in midground are mostly planted and foreground actively managed.
Ponderosa pine covered slope. Hardwoods in midground are mostly planted and foreground actively managed.
While ponderosa pine covers some slopes and ridges without interruption, especially at lower elevations, on sites with more reliable moisture other tree species frequently add diversity to the forest. Bur oak and green ash line the low elevation streams and sometimes entirely displace ponderosa pine. Along with the Eurasian white willow, the plains cottonwood and peachleaf willow that shade the rivers flowing through the adjacent prairies grow scattered among the more abundant ash and oak. Moving up the streams, all of the lowland hardwoods become scarce except for bur oak, but paper birch takes their place. Bur oak grows throughout alluvial flats bordering the streams while paper birch clings more closely to stream-sides and nearby steep, shaded slopes. Above about a mile in elevation, paper birch begins to spread farther from the streams, the bur oak population thins, and quaking aspen and black hills spruce, a variety of white spruce, become common riparian trees. Ascending to the highest elevations, spruce becomes less topographically restricted and replaces ponderosa pine on moist sites.
Hardwood lined low elevation stream.  Most of the trees are green ash with a few larger cottonwoods.  Ponderosa pine on the foothill in the background.
Hardwood lined low elevation stream. Most of the trees are green ash with a few larger cottonwoods. Ponderosa pine on the foothill in the background.
Bur oaks along French Creek
Bur oaks along French Creek
Ponderosa pine on rocky slopes and paper birch lining a small tributary
Ponderosa pine on rocky slopes and paper birch lining a small tributary
Black Hills spruce
Black Hills spruce
In addition to these common trees, a few species grow in association with extreme topography or as isolated individuals. American elm, common in floodplain forests to the south and east, grows at very low densities along low elevation streams. Similarly, the western riparian species narrowleaf cottonwood grows in a few small colonies along mid-elevation streams. Rocky Mountain juniper grows on some large, north facing cliffs. The wide ranging lodgepole pine grows in a few isolated populations. Finally, South Dakota’s only population of limber pine, typically found at high elevations in the Rockies or Cascades, grows at the base of a high elevation cliff.
Narrowleaf cottonwood
Narrowleaf cottonwood
Woody shrubs are as at least as diverse as trees on the scale of both individual stands and the entire black hills. On rocky sites common juniper is often… common. As in other parts of its vast range, that species often associates with bearberry and buffaloberry. At the opposite topographic extreme, willows frequently dominate swampy areas, either interior willow at low elevations or a different species (bebb?) at high elevations. On other mesic sites, a serviceberry and a clonal cherry are often common. On more intermediate sites, snowberry, a rose, and a ninebark are common.
Rose
Rose
Like many forests in semi-arid climates or other moisture limited settings, Black Hills forests are relatively open with the canopy often not quite closing. Bur oak on low elevation alluvial flats and black hills spruce on alluvial flats with a high water table sometimes produce closed canopy stands, but rocky soils leading to woodland densities are much more common. The vertical structure is often similarly sparse with a single well developed canopy layer. Ponderosa pines may be twice as tall as the associated oaks and birch, but the hardwoods tend to grow between the scattered tall pines rather than as a midstory underneath them. Moderately dense pine regeneration can produce a distinct understory, but that regeneration tends to be patchy. Similarly, shrubs are scattered or patchy with bearberry and common juniper most likely to grow in large patches.
Pondersoa pine and bur oak riparian forest with a few paper birch on the streams edge
Pondersoa pine and bur oak riparian forest with a few paper birch on the streams edge
A quick glance from any overlook or many trails around Mount Harney, the highest peak in the Black Hills, reveals recent dramatic changes in forest structure and composition. Mountain pine beetle has killed most of the ponderosa pine at high elevations over the past decade leaving mountain sides covered in skeletal forests. However, the beetle does not attack young trees, and unlike many pests and pathogens that are currently devastating forests, mountain pine beetle is a native species. The large scale of the recent outbreak has been attributed to drought and high stand densities stressing the trees. In response, Custer State Park, which managers a small percentage but still large area the Black Hills, is now thinning all their high elevation stands and either burning or leaving the cut trees. Historically, fires would have limited pine regeneration and kept stand densities lower.
North side of Mount Harney.  Green trees are a mix of ponderosa pine and black hills spruce while dead trees are ponderosa pine.
North side of Mount Harney. Green trees are a mix of ponderosa pine and black hills spruce while dead trees are ponderosa pine.
Ponderosa pine forest with abundant regeneration
Ponderosa pine forest with abundant regeneration
Fire suppression and logging changed the age structure of Black Hills forests before the recent mountain pine beetle epidemic, but the Black Hills did not undergoing clearing to the same degree as eastern mountains. While the lowest elevations were clear-cut perhaps a century ago and flat areas hold younger forest actively managed for timber, even within the state park, areas only moderately rugged contain at least scattered old trees. Pines over 200 years old are easily seen from state highways as they wind through rocky creek basins, and old-growth stands with pines reported to be over 600 years old remain on some inconspicuous rocky hills.
Old ponderosa pine
Old ponderosa pine
Another old pine
Another old pine
These descriptions are based on my observations in and around Custer State Park in the east-central Black Hills. Different patterns of species abundance and distribution may occur in the wetter northern Hills or other parts of the mountain range.

Jess Riddle

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Matt Markworth
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Re: Black Hills forests

Post by Matt Markworth » Fri Dec 06, 2013 7:45 pm

Jess,

Thanks for the great report. The photo of the Bur Oaks along French Creek is outstanding. Great setting and love that bark!

Matt

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DougBidlack
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Re: Black Hills forests

Post by DougBidlack » Sat Dec 07, 2013 1:29 pm

Jess,

I absolutely love your very thorough posts! My wife and I were in the area around the same time as you but we left for Utah due to the government shutdown and the poor weather. Just before we went on our trip I noticed that Mark (Iowa big tree guy) had measured the South Dakota champion black hills spruce if I remember correctly. Did you notice that? Hopefully Mark can make some comments about that tree and perhaps others as well.

Doug

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Jess Riddle
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Re: Black Hills forests

Post by Jess Riddle » Mon Dec 09, 2013 7:10 pm

Matt,

Thanks. That was my favorite photo too.

Doug,

I hadn't even realized that American Forests recognized Black Hills spruce rather than lumping it with white spruce. I've got some measurements of them coming up in a future post.

Jess

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