Mission Mountains Wilderness Research Project

UM grad students leading Citizen Scientists on research trips

In 2015 Citizen Scientists collected data on understory vegetation, overstory trees, whitebark pine survival and characteristics, as well as burn severity. 

Project Summary: Efficacy of Prescribed Burns in Whitebark Pine 

Because of its ecological importance as a keystone species, there is considerable interest in and excitement about conservation and restoration of whitebark pine. Prescribed fire is one of the restoration treatments that managers are using in an attempt to improve whitebark pine regeneration, reduce competition from firs, and restore more open stand structures. Also relatively unknown is the effect of restoration treatments on natural recruitment of whitebark pine. Furthermore, although rates of regeneration are driven by cone production, no one has assessed the effects burning on cone or seed production in whitebark pine, despite the high level of interest in promoting natural regeneration.

There is a clear need for increased information about the effects of prescribed burning on whitebark pine, not just because of questions of efficacy of treatments for restoration, but also because of potential non-target ecological effects. Burning has been observed to have some unintended consequences, including increasing mortality of mature whitebark pine and frequency of attacks from mountain pine beetle. Thus, there is a critical need for long-term assessment treated stands to determine the ecological consequences of using burning as a tool for whitebark pine restoration. Towards that end, the overall objectives of the proposed research are to assess the effects of prescribed burning on whitebark pine growth, cone production, regeneration and successional dynamics, as well as insect and disease incidence.

Research questions

1. What are the effects of prescribed burn restoration treatment on species composition and size structure of whitebark pine stands?

2. What are the effects of prescribed burn restoration treatment on rates of growth and seed production in whitebark pine? Do responses vary by tree competitive environment?

3. What are the effects of prescribed burn restoration treatment on a) natural recruitment of whitebark pine seedlings and b) cover of understory species thought to influence whitebark recruitment?

4. What are the effects of prescribed burn restoration treatment on rates of mortality, frequency or severity of mountain pine beetle attack, and incidence of white pine blister rust in whitebark pine?

5. How do prescribed burn treatments affect factors that influence fire behavior, including surface and canopy fuel loads?

6. What influence does burn severity have on the variables outlined above?

History

In the fall of 2014, the 1,036-acre Mission Upland Prescribed Burn was implemented by the US Forest Service in the Mission Mountain Wilderness and Swan Lake Ranger District of Flathead National Forest. One of the primary objectives of the burn was to promote regeneration and survival of whitebark pine. This treatment provides a prime opportunity to assess whether or not the prescribed burn met its intended objectives with regard to whitebark pine restoration. Post-treatment data collection is imperative in determining this, and will allow land managers to adaptively manage their future restoration activities based on the findings of this project.