Abstract - Fire History of the Southern Black Hills - South Dakota

Brown, Peter M. 1994. Fire History of the Southern Black Hills, South Dakota. 13 p.


Fire was a key disturbance process that shaped the composition and structure of plant and animal communities in western North America prior to widespread settlement by non-native peoples (Wright and Bailey 1982). Since widespread settlement, generally beginning in the mid to late 1800s in most areas of western North America, profound changes have occurred in many communities due to human activities such as livestock grazing, logging, and active fire suppression. These human impacts have generally led to a reduction or, in most cases, complete exclusion of fire occurrences on the landscape.

In order to understand the unique role that fire has played in shaping a particular ecosystem, a historical perspective on pre-settlement fire regimes is needed. Fire histories - including data on past fire frequency, timin, seasonality, and spatial pattering -- provide not only baseline information for the study of fire as a disturbance process in ecosystem dynamics, but also contribute essential data needed for land and fire management activities in different forest types. Information on past fire frequency provides guidelines for yearly timing of prescribed fires while seasonality of past fires tells a manager what time of year to burn. Spatial information can provide guidelines for fire sizes and landscape patterning. Fire history information can also be important as justification for prescribed fire and other management activities to present to the public. Data describing the past role of fire activities, especially for Parks and other areas where management goals are to establish and maintain natural conditions and processes on the landscape.

While temporal and spatial patterns of past fire regimes are known for ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl. ex Laws.) communities in several regions of the interior west (Weaver 1951, Cooper 1960, 1961, Wright and Bailey 1982, Dieterich and Swetnam 1984, Swetnam et al. 1989, Baisan and Swetnam 1990, Covington and Moore 1992, Caprio and Swetnam, in press), relatively little is known about pre-historic fire regimes in ponderosa pine of the Black Hills of western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. Comparisons of photographs from the late 1800s with recent photographs show dramatic increases in ponderosa pine densities and invasion into meadows in the Black Hills (Progulske 1974). These community changes are similar to those that have occurred in ponderosa pine forests of the southwest or southern Rocky Mountains that are argued to be the result of fire exclusion during the past century (e.g. Covington and Moore 1992, 1994). However, only one published fire history from a Black Hills ponderosa pine community is available, this from Devil's Tower National Monument on the western edge of the Black Hills in Wyoming (Fisher et al. 1987). To more fully understand the range of fire regimes that were present prior to non-native settlement, fire histories are needed from other areas in the Black Hills.

This study used fire scars recorded in dendrochronologically-dated tree-ring series to develop fire histories for two site in Jewel Cave National Monument in the central Black Hills. These fire histories include information about past fire frequencies, timing, and spatial patterning, as well as information about the maximum age structure of ponderosa pine communities in the Jewel Cave area.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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