Multicentury, regional-scale patterns of western spruce budworm outbreaks

Tomas W. Swetnam, Ann M. Lynch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

252 Scopus citations


Tree ring chronologies from 24 mixed-conifer stands were used to reconstruct the long-term history of western spruce budworm (Choristoneura occidentalis) in northern New Mexico. Temporal and spatial patterns of budworm infestations (within-stand occurrences) and outbreaks (more-or-less synchronous infestations across many stands) were investigated to identify local-scale to regional-scale forest disturbance patterns. Nine regional-scale outbreaks were identified from 1690 to 1989. One ancient stand of Douglasfir trees (Pseudotsuga menziesii) exceeding 700 yr in age revealed that budworms and overstory trees can coexist for extraordinary lengths of time. Using spectral analysis we found that the regional outbreak record contained important cyclical components with periods varying from ≈ 20 to 33 yr. The statistically significant (P < .05) but variable periodicity of regional outbreaks suggests the forest-budworm dynamic is pseudoperiodic (i.e., a stable limit cycle or damped oscillator perturbed by noise). Duration of infestations within stands was ≈ 11 yr and has not obviously changed in the 20th century; however, infestations tended to be more synchronous among stands in this century than during earlier centuries. Regional budworm activity was low from the mid-1920s to late 1930s and mid-1960s to late 1970s, and the most recent outbreak, beginning in the late 1970s, was unusually severe. These results, and contrasting infestation patterns in mountain ranges with different land use histories, generally support a hypothesis that human-induced changes in Southwestern forests have led to more widespread and intense budworm outbreaks in the late 20th century. Despite human-induced changes in the 20th century, climate variation also appears to have been important to budworm regimes in this century as well as in earlier times. Regional outbreaks in the 20th century tended to occur during years of increased spring precipitation, and decreased budworm activity coincided with decreased spring precipitation. No clear association with temperature was identified. Comparisons of regional outbreak history since AD 1600 with a reconstruction of spring precipitation from limber pine (Pinus flexilis) ring width chronologies also shows that periods of increased and decreased budworm activity coincided with wetter and drier periods, respectively. This finding contrasts with results from shorter time-scale studies conducted in northwestern U.S. and Canada (western spruce budworm) and eastern Canada (spruce budworm C. fumiferana), where low precipitation and/or warmer temperatures were generally associated with outbreaks. Different patterns of budworm population response to changing moisture regimes might be due to differences in regional forest-budworm systems, or to differences in the spatial and temporal scales of observation. We conclude that changes in forest structure in the southwestern U.S. may have shifted the spatial and temporal pattern of budworm outbreaks. The dynamic behavior and statistically significant association between multicentury, regional budworm and climate time series also suggest that complex budworm dynamics are driven by a combination of internal and external factors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)399-424
Number of pages26
JournalEcological Monographs
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 1 1993


  • Abies concolor
  • Choristoneura occidentalis
  • Climate change
  • Dendroecology
  • Forest disturbance
  • Forest dynamics
  • Old growth
  • Plant-herbivore interactions
  • Population dynamics
  • Pseudotsuga menziesii
  • Tree rings
  • Western spruce budworm

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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