Brown, Peter M. and Sieg, Carolyn H. 1999. Historical variability in fire at the ponderosa pine - Northern Great Plains prairie ecotone, southeastern Black Hills, South Dakota.
Ecotones are boundaries between plant assemblages that can represent a physiological or competitive limit of species’ local distributions, usually through one or more biotic or abiotic constraints on species’ resource requirements. However, ecotones also result from the effects of chronic or episodic disturbances, and changes in disturbance regimes may have profound effects on vegetation patterns in transitional areas. In this study, centuries-long chronologies of surface fire events were constructed from fire-scarred ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Doug1.ex Laws.) trees in three sites at the ecotone between ponderosa pine forest and Northern Great Plains mixed-grass prairie in the southeastern Black Hills of South Dakota. The fire chronologies provide baseline data to assess the possible role of fire in this transitional area and to document historical variability in fire regimes in this region of the Northern Great Plains. Regular fire events were recorded at all three sites from the beginning of the fire chronologies in the 1500s up to the late 1800s or early 1900s, at which time spreading fires ceased. Fire frequencies derived from the fire chronologies were compared to each other and to four sites from interior ponderosa pine forest in the south-central Black Hills. Mean fire intervals at the savanna sites were between 10 to 12 years, whereas Weibull median probability intervals were one year shorter. Fire frequency at the savanna sites was twice as high as the interior forest sites, and most likely was due to spatial extent of fires on the mixed-grass prairie coupled with warmer and drier climate regime. Post-settlement shifts in the ponderosa pine savanna during the twentieth century in this area may be largely attributed to lack of fire occurrences, although grazing and other factors also likely contributed to observed changes in forest and grassland margins.