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Snowshoe hares prefer many other plants to white spruce seedlings, but when the population of hares skyrockets—as it does about once a decade—they can decimate even a bumper crop of spruce seedlings. Researchers with the Bonanza Creek LTER reconstructed over 40 years of browsing history by analyzing the age and browse scars of thousands of seedlings and saplings at 18 locations on the floodplain of Alaska’s Tanana River.

White spruce is the dominant boreal tree species and a key source of timber, but climate change is rapidly re-making the Arctic. Understanding the multiple factors that affect white spruce recruitment and establishment may help to predict, and even influence, where these valuable trees can get—and keep—a foothold.

The study, published in Forest Ecology and Management, fingered hot dry summers and as a major source of seedling mortality and early snowfall as protective, but the overwhelming factor influencing seedling establishment was whether seeds got started in the lull between hare population booms

The authors included a short homage to the beloved naturalist Aldo Leopold, who observed a similar dynamic between oaks and rabbits on his Wisconsin farm in 1949.