Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Tree mortality in mature riparian forest: Implications for Fremont cottonwood conservation in the American southwest

August 1, 2015

Mature tree mortality rates are poorly documented in desert riparian woodlands. I monitored deaths and calculated annual survivorship probability (Ps) in 2 groups of large (27–114 cm DBH), old (≥40 years old) Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii Wats.) in a stand along the free-flowing Yampa River in semiarid northwestern Colorado. Ps = 0.993 year-1 in a group (n = 126) monitored over 2003–2013, whereas Ps = 0.985 year-1 in a group (n = 179) monitored over the same period plus 3 earlier years (2000–2003) that included drought and a defoliating insect outbreak. Assuming Ps was the same for both groups during the 10-year postdrought period, the data indicate that Ps = 0.958 year-1 during the drought. I found no difference in canopy dieback level between male and female survivors. Mortality was equal among size classes, suggesting Ps is independent of age, but published longevity data imply that either Ps eventually declines with age or, as suggested in this study, periods with high Ps are interrupted by episodes of increased mortality. Stochastic population models featuring episodes of low Ps suggest a potential for an abrupt decline in mature tree numbers where recruitment is low. The modeling results have implications for woodland conservation, especially for relictual stands along regulated desert rivers.