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Nearly a third of southern Sierra forests killed by drought and wildfire in last decade

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As climate change continues to transform California’s landscape in staggering and often irreversible ways, researchers have zeroed in on yet another casualty of the shift: the forests of the southern Sierra Nevada.

Between 2011 and 2020, wildfires, drought and bark beetle infestations contributed to the loss of nearly a third of all conifer forests in the lower half of the mountain range, according to a recent study published in the journal Ecological Applications. Eighty-five percent of the southern Sierra’s high-density mature forests either lost density or became non-forest vegetation.

The losses could have grave consequences for California wildlife, including protected species such as spotted owls and Pacific fishers who rely on mature tree canopies for their habitats. Researchers said the findings are not only another indication of the state’s shifting climate regime, but also offer new insights that could help guide forest management and conservation strategies moving forward.

“Thirty percent of conifer forests in the southern Sierra Nevada are no longer considered forests,” said Zachary Steel, a research scientist with the United States Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station and the lead author of the study. “They’re either sparsely treed landscapes or, more often, are transitioning either in the short term or long term to more of a shrubland-type system.”

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