Scientists & Staff

Brian R. Sturtevant

Research Ecologist
5985 Highway K
Rhinelander, WI, 54501-9128
Phone: 715-362-1105

Contact Brian R. Sturtevant

Current Research

The scientist investigates interactions among human land use and management, forest vegetation, and natural disturbance processes (principally fire and defoliating insects) across large landscapes in time and space. Under this guiding theme, the scientist develops landscape models to synthesize information across scales and scientific disciplines, and applies those models to investigate the emergent consequences of these interacting phenomena. The cumulative effects of these interactions result in persistent spatial legacies that often constrain future management options and may impact ecosystem resilience to future change.

The scientist also designs field studies to address fundamental knowledge gaps limiting the understanding of disturbance processes and effects. Some focal areas include: 1. how landscape legacies from past forest management patterns can either buffer or amplify insect outbreaks; 2. how disturbance intensity or severity (e.g., fire or insect defoliation) many be scaled up using different remote sensing platforms; 3. how fuel loading and fire intensity relates to belowground soil heating, and its consequences for the restoration of fire-prone ecosystems.

Such field study enable selective replacement of empirical model components, dependent on past observations, with process-based model components based on mechanistic understanding and theoretical underpinnings. This last objective is critical because the novel conditions anticipated within the global context of anthropogenic climate, atmospheric, biodiversity, and land cover changes suggest that the empirical relationships of the past will become increasingly unreliable in the future. Hence the overarching goal of the scientist's research program is to advance both the state of the art in landscape disturbance and succession modeling and the field of landscape ecology as it applies to disturbance and change within forested ecosystems.

Research Interests

Emergent themes within the scientist's research program include: 
  • Restoration of temperate woodland and savanna ecosystems through effective application of fire
  • Modeling of wind-assisted insect dispersal
  • Approximating "tri-trophic" (i.e., forest, insect, natural enemy) interactions affecting outbreak dynamics in time and space within forest landscape models
  • Addressing the human dimensions of uncertainty affecting the possible future conditions of forested landscapes using "strategic foresight" and "participatory modeling" techniques.

Why This Research is Important

Forests provide essential ecosystem services across the globe including carbon storage, water quality, climate regulation, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity. Yet forests are increasingly stressed by a range of agents that are threatening the resilience of these systems and the ecosystem services they provide. Forest landscape models synthesize what is known and unknown regarding drivers and processes underlying forest dynamics through time and space, and can enable projections of potential futures in forested landscapes that might be realized. Still, forest disturbance interactions in time and space are complex, and require both conceptual and emprical advances to ensure their results are grounded in good science. Fortunately, data collection technology (e.g., remote sensing, data loggers, molecular techniques), analytical tools, and computational power continue to increase, facillitating more effective study and modelling of such complexity. Such research will enable the development of next-generation landscape models that, ultimately, provide decision support for land managers based on the best available science.


  • University of Maryland at College Park, Ph.D. Ecology, 2001
  • Utah State University, M.S. Wildlife Ecology, 1996
  • Rutgers University, B.S. Natural Resources Management, 1992

Professional Experience

  • Research Ecologist, Northern Research Station, Rhinelander, WI 2001 - Current

Professional Organizations

  • Lake States Fire Science Consortium (2017 - Current)
  • Association for Fire Ecology (2007 - Current)
  • LANDIS-II Foundation (2006 - Current)
    Technical Advisory Committee
  • International Association for Landscape Ecology (U.S. Chapter) (1997 - Current)
    Program co-Chair: Annual Meeting, Chicago, 2018; Sponsorship Committee: Member 2008-2011, Chair 2011-2014
  • Ecological Society of America (1996 - Current)

Awards & Recognition

  • Wings across the Americas Conservation Award - Habitat Conservation Partnership: USDA Forest Service, 2017 Co-author of Niemi et al. 2016. Analysis of long-term forest bird monitoring data from national forests of the western Great Lakes Region. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-159.
  • Partners in Flight Investigations Award: North American Bird Conservation Initiative., 2017 Co-author of Niemi et al. 2016. Analysis of long-term forest bird monitoring data from national forests of the western Great Lakes Region. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-159.
  • Senior Research Award: Association of Southeastern Biologists, 2002 Co-recipient with Steven Seagle: Seagle, S.W. and Sturtevant, B.R. 2005. Forest productivity predicts invertebrate biomass and Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus) reproduction in Appalachian landscapes. Ecology 86: 1531-1539.

Featured Publications & Products

Publications & Products

Other Publications

  • Sturtevant, B.R., J.R. Miesel, M.B. Dickinson, R.K. Kolka, C.C. Kern, D.M. Donner, K.M. Quigley, and M.M. Bushman. 2020. Manipulating soil heating patterns to optimize barrens restoration (JFSP Project ID: 15-1-05-13). Final Report to the Joint Fire Science Program, September, 2020.

Research Datasets

  • Wolter, Peter T.; Sturtevant, Brian R.; Miranda, Brian R.; Lietz, Sue M.; Townsend, Philip A.; Pastor, John. 2012. Greater Border Lakes Region land cover classification and change detection. Newtown Square, PA: USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station.
  • Potts, Robert S.; Gustafson, Eric J.; Stewart, Susan I.; Thompson, Frank R.; Bergen, Kathleen; Brown, Daniel G.; Hammer, Roger; Radeloff, Volker; Bengston, David; Sauer, John; Sturtevant, Brian. 2005. The changing Midwest assessment: data and shapefiles. St. Paul, MN: USDA Forest Service, North Central Research Station.

National Research Highlights

Scientists model the effects of restoring the American chestnut tree to the eastern U.S. landscape

Year: 2017

The American chestnut tree is fast growing, somewhat tolerant of shade, and its wood is resistant to decay. The chestnut tree might be capable of significantly increasing carbon storage if it could be restored to its former dominance across the eastern U.S., but is it capable of reasserting its dominance in the face of changing climate and new insect pests and can it increase carbon storage in eastern forests?

Figure 1. Isle Royale National Park (upper left) is home to populations of wolves and moose (upper right, data from Vucetich and Peterson 2015). Simulated trends (+/- 90 percent confidence intervals) in moose population density (lower left), and available forage biomass/moose carrying capacity (lower right) for the three predation scenarios. Actual moose population estimates for Isle Royale from 2006-2015 (black) are provided for reference.
Figure 2. Simulated changes in forest types at Isle Royale after 100 years of no predation vs strong predation rates.

Modeling wolf-moose forest interactions at Isle Royale National Park

Year: 2017

The loss of top predators may have unintended consequences for forest composition and function. Forest Service scientists partnered with the U.S. Geologic Survey and National Park Service to investigate the effects of alternative wolf predation scenarios on the moose and forest dynamics at Isle Royale National Park near Michigan’s border with Canada. Will the impending loss of wolves from the park affect the future state of the forest ecosystem?

Figure 1. Contrasts of fire severity (light: a,b; severe (severe: c, d) for the Pagami Creek Fire. Remotely-sensed estimates of fire
severity such as the relative difference normalized burn ratio (RdNBR) are most strongly related to tree impacts. Loss of C, N, and Hg
from the forest floor were most strongly related to soil burn severity indices measured at the point of sampling, where the sampling
ring in b & d are 30 cm in diameter. Brian Sturtevant, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

Scaling Up Ecosystem Impacts of the Pagami Creek Fire in Northern Minnesota

Year: 2016

Quantifying fire severity is critical to understanding the ecosystem impacts of wildfire. Forest Service research demonstrates the magnitude of ecosystem impacts from large wildfires, the challenges of relating those impacts to repeatable and scalable fire severity indices, and the application of remote sensing to help scale severity and ecosystem impacts of large wildfires.

Book cover

Simulation Modeling of Forest Landscape Disturbances

Year: 2015

Simulation models of landscape disturbances have proliferated and matured. A Forest Service scientist co-edited the book “Simulation Modeling of Forest Landscape Disturbances” that represents a synthesis of the current state of knowledge in forest landscape disturbance models across a wide variety of processes that include physical (drought, wind, and fire), biological (defoliating insects, bark beetles, and tree pathogens) and human-caused activities, interactions between disturbances and climate change, and subsequent landscape recovery. Contributing authors applied models across these different dimensions to explore advancements and challenges in modeling techniques and identify future needs in quantifying forest landscape disturbances.

The Border Lakes Ecoregion contains (top) has starkly different land management histories separated by political boundaries.  Divergent land management histories created differences in landscape patterns of spruce budworm host (i.e., spruce and fir) that were mapped using remote sensing.  Spruce budworm disturbance histories reconstructed via tree-ring analyses across this study area include a range of outbreak frequencies and intensities (lower left, where position roughly corresponds to geographic location).  The greatest variation in the time-series of outbreak patterns were explained by forest configuration, followed by forest proportion, and then the variance shared by these two variables, while climate accounted for comparatively little variation (lower left). USDA Forest Service

Changes in Host Abundance Following Harvesting Desynchronize Forest Insect Pest Outbreaks

Year: 2015

A Forest Service scientist led an international team to investigate how different historic forest management practices have affected spruce budworm outbreaks in a large “experimental landscape” spanning the U.S.-Canadian border. Their results show the strongest evidence to date that human-mediated changes to forest landscapes affect the intensity and consequences of forest insect outbreaks at broad spatial scales.

Study findings showed the Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) had significantly increasing numbers since 1995 in three National Forests: Chippewa, Superior and Chequamegon-Nicolet.  In addition, the Ovenbird and Red-eyed Vireo were the two most abundantly recorded species in the Chippewa and Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forests. Common species such as the Ovenbird tended to occur in many forest cover types, but most commonly in upland hardwood forests. Jon Swanson

Bird Monitoring in the Western Great Lakes National Forests Shows Stabilized Breeding Bird Populations

Year: 2014

The results from 20 years of forest bird monitoring in four national forests in Minnesota and Wisconsin show positive trends in breeding bird population stability. The new report by Forest Service scientists and partners represents the most comprehensive volume of quantitative information ever compiled on the trends, habitat use, and community assemblages of breeding forest birds of the western Great Lakes region.

Aerial view of the Aspen FACE experiment showing the control facilities (middle left), and the 12 atmospheric treatment rings of four treatments with three replicates.  In the ring at bottom center, the different model forest communities are visible. David F. Karnosky, Michigan Tech University.

Scientists Predict Survivability Factors for Northern Forests Given Elevated CO2 and Ozone Levels

Year: 2013

The researchers scaled up a high-profile 11-year ecosystem experiment called Aspen-FACE to assess how elevated carbon dioxide and ozone levels might impact real forests at the landscape scale over the course of many future decades. They determined that there will be winners and losers among species and within species groups but that managers can have considerable control over the outcomes by managing disturbance effects on forests and landscape spatial patterns. The researchers also found that changes will be gradual and that few species are likely to disappear completely because of carbon dioxide and ozone effects alone.

Spruce and fir increase the vertical connectivity of live fuels, enhancing potential for crown-fire activity. Brian Sturtevant , Forest Service

Spruce Budworm Effects on Fire Risk and Vegetation in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Year: 2012

Insect-killed trees do not necessarily increase fire risk

Last modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2021