This study compares the effects of wildfire and local variation in the amount of residual woody debris on natural regeneration in jack pine on exploratory well pads in Alberta’s boreal forest.
Restoring anthropogenic footprints to pre-disturbance conditions or minimizing their long-term impacts is an important goal in conservation. Many footprints, particularly if left alone, have wide-ranging effects on biodiversity. In Canada, energy exploration footprints result in forest dissection and fragmentation contributing to declines in woodland caribou. Developing cost effective strategies to restore forests and thus conserving the woodland caribou habitat is a conservation priority. In this study, we compared the effects of wildfire and local variation in the amount of residual woody debris on natural regeneration in jack pine on exploratory well pads in Alberta’s boreal forest. Specifically, we investigated how footprint size, fire severity (overstory tree mortality), ground cover of fine and coarse woody debris, and adjacent stand characteristics (i.e., height, age, and cover), affected tree regeneration densities and height using negative binomial count and linear models (Gaussian), respectively. Regeneration density was 30% higher on exploratory well pads than adjacent forests, increased linearly with fire severity on the exploratory well pads (2.2% per 1% increase in fire severity), but non-linearly in adjacent forests (peaking at 51,000 stems/ha at 72% fire severity), and decreased with amount of woody debris on exploratory well pads (2.7% per 1% increase in woody debris cover). The height of regenerating trees on exploratory well pads decreased with fire severity (0.56 cm per 1% increase in fire severity) and was non-linearly related to coarse woody debris (peaking at 286 cm at 9.4% coarse woody debris cover). Heights of 3 and 5 m on exploratory well pads were predicted by 13- and 21-years post-fire, respectively. Our results demonstrate that wildfires can stimulate natural recovery of fire-adapted species, such as jack pine, on disturbances as large as exploratory well pads (500–1330 m2 ) and that the type and amount of woody debris affects these patterns.