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College of Forestry and Conservation

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A Walk in the Woods with an Ecologist’s Eye

By Erika Foster, Environmental Studies and Resource Conservation major, Wilderness Studies minor
Saturday, August 20, 2011

After climbing to an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet, we perched ourselves atop a rocky hilltop looking out over the entire Swan Valley. As we rested and enjoyed lunch, we listened for the Clark’s Nut Cracker, flipped through Rocky Mountain Flora and surveyed the rolling mountains below. Yesterday we discussed land management practices and visited several forested sites and today we focused on conservation from an ecological research perspective. Adam Lieberg, the Conservation Program Coordinator of Northwest Connections led us up Alpine Trail 7 to Nappa Point to study an alpine ecosystem. This trail towards Nappa point offered breathtaking views of the Swan across to the Missions and provided an example of a whitebark pine ecosystem affected by climate change. This hike provided an opportunity for Adam to fill us in on the research projects of Northwest Connections, just one part of a long term forest monitoring initiative.Adam Lieberg points out massive landscape changes do to whitebark pine die-off.

Adam described the importance of the monitoring projects conducted overtime, in order to observe the change over longer periods. As broad ecosystem changes occur due to climate change impacts, understanding the historical, current and future states of the landscape in pristine areas such as the Swan Valley can provide useful and applicable information about ecosystem response to climate change.

On the way towards Nappa point Adam described the niche that whitebark pine has co-evolved to fill within this specific alpine environment. Whitebark pine trees provided many ecosystem services. The stretching branches form a wide crown that creates shade that can slow snowmelt while holding it in place. Many animal species from grizzly bears to squirrels rely upon whitebark pine seeds as a major food source. Furthermore, this species co-evolved with the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird specially adapted to caching whitebark pine seeds in open scarified disturbed landscapes. When a bird looses a cache or somehow doesn’t return to the site, then those pine nuts will germinate, often in clusters. This explains why as we hiked along the trail, the tall stretching whitebark pine trees often stand huddled in clumps. 
Adam stopped us all to look closely at one particularly healthy looking stand of whitebark to the side of the trail. It appeared as if there were small cages placed over the top of each of the cones. These seeds were being saved to be later grown in a nursery and planted in other areas, as these particular trees apparently were resistant to diseases that plague the species. Whitebark pine faces problems regenerating due to fire suppression and thus the lack of disturbed areas where Clark’s nutcrackers hide the seeds. Also with rising temperatures, other generalist species encroach and compete within the same habitat, as in the lodgepole pine tree.

One of the other students noted along the trail that several of the whitebark pines had red patches in their branches. Adam explained that a disease called blister rust was brought into the country by Gifford Pinchot in the earth 1900s in several pine trees from Europe. The disease has continued to spread in the western US, causing many weakened trees to become infected and die. These effects are clearly observed through the flagging of red needles that occur. These red patches are the same burnt, rust color that covers entire tried due to yet another large cause of stress for the whitebark pine, the mountain pine beetle.

Though originally simply a natural part of many forest ecosystems, mountain pine beetle infestation has become an epidemic and a huge reason why whitebark pine is an incredibly threatened species today. Typically, in years past, mountain pine beetles would fly to find a suitable tree and burrow into the cambium layer to lay their eggs. We saw some of these burrowing holes in other trees earlier on our trip, as the beetles congregate to attack the same tree at once. If the tree’s natural defenses didn’t manage to pitch the burrowing beetles out, then they could lay their eggs in the tree. The hatched larvae eat their way through the cambium, essentially preventing vital flow of nutrients and water up the trunk. As we peeled a section of bark off, we could see the “J” carved into the tree that the larvae had eaten away.  We find a mountain pine beetle.

Though this is a natural process, rising temperatures have aided the growth of the beetle infestation. A normal winter, with two to three weeks of temperatures below freezing would kill off much of the beetle populations. Now the milder winters allow beetles to reproduce up to two generations per year, the natural cycle has become unbalanced. With warming temperatures, more competition and blister rust to fight off, adding beetles to the mixture may indicate the rapid decline of whitebark pine populations across Montana.
So, with all of these adverse conditions for a special native plant species, finding a future for these pines seems difficult. Observing these impacts on the landscape made me wonder: How is it possible to save a species from extinction in these conditions? The answer to this question begins with research. Adam described to us how Northwest Connections is one organization that has conducted long term monitoring projects within the Swan Valley. The Forest Service contracts them to complete the monitoring work. With funding from the student’s tuition, Northwest Connections has the means to make this work possible. Also, through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, they were able to partner with the Forest Service and other community groups.
The study conducted looks at several stress factors that contribute to the decline of whitebark pine populations.  The citizen scientists will measure the health of the trees in the study by looking at blister rust flagging and also cankers on the trunk and branches, a natural defense mechanism. With this monitoring of pines, the overall health of the ecosystem will be better understood. Only with a long term monitoring program will we begin to understand the human impacts and other changes on the landscape. Once we comprehend these alterations we will be armed to help manage forest lands in the face of a changing climate.