Teams of FSPW volunteers have been engaged in subalpine community reconnaissance over the last few weeks, traversing extreme terrain at times to reach areas with high potential for whitebark pine community establishment. So far, teams have been into Scotchman Peak, Goat Mountain, East Fork Peak, and Moose Mountain assessing the forest communities.
Subalpine communities exist throughout the high mountains of the Pacific Northwest into the Rocky Mountains, in landscapes above mixed montane conifer forests and below alpine shrublands and grassland. The climate here can be ferocious, with extremely frigid temperatures, severe wind speeds and in several areas heavy, seasonal snowpack. For a community to establish itself in the first place is a feat in its own right. Inhospitable bedrock peaks in glacially carved ridges and basins, where steep aspects discourage soil development. I always find it stunning, how these relatively delicate bits of plant life can reach down into rock crags and twist and turn themselves safe into minute folds of micro-climates… life finds a way. Once a tree seedling first makes it into one of these areas, whether by water, wind, mammalian host, etc, finding itself a suitable bed of nutrients for growth, its strength is tested time and time again as the nature of alpine environments continue to sculpt the landscape and its inhabitants. When a tree has sufficient provisions, it has the chance to develop and engender the beginnings of a larger community, through seed production (or branch layering) and niche creation. The size and composition of the community that then develops often has as its limiting factors severity and intensity of natural disturbance regimes.
On July 8th, a crew of 6 members set out to conduct multiple surveys during a three day backpacking endeavor into the Scotchman Peak and Goat Mountain drainages. These specific areas are notorious for their extreme slopes and pitches, making backpacking these regions a rather strenuous event. Under the weight of heavy gear, the climb up to where small pockets of level ground may exist for sleeping is a challenge. Of course, the rewards of succeeding come easily once surrounded by the serene, untouched scenery and the gentle flow of life in the wilderness. Once the crew set up basecamp, several surveys were conducted as day trips. Whitebark Pine community history/potential were assessed in headwater drainages of Cascade creek and Mosquito creek. The area proved to contain individuals suitable for cone collection, which will aid production of genetically resilient individuals in a controlled environment.
Whitebark pine, Pinus lasiocarpus, is a pioneering tree in these subalpine habitats. Historical fire regimes encourage its presence in these landscapes, creating broad openings for insolation where more shade tolerant subalpine associates, like Western Hemlock, Subalpine Fir, and Englemann Spruce, are incapable of establishing. Whitebark Pine persists on drier southerly aspects and ridgetops, and often remains as the climax species in these sites as well as those with reoccurring wind and fire disturbance. In almost all of these environments, Whitebark Pine is a slow-growing tree. Seeds are large and relatively heavy, born out of large, purplish-brown cones clustered at the tips of the tree. Most of these seeds are harvested by animals, including the Clark’s nutcracker and grizzly bears, valued for their high protein content. The remaining seeds fall to the ground below the parent tree, are stirred around a bit by snow or running water, and may either regenerate or simply fall into decomposition. Seedlings develop a deep and spreading root system to anchor themselves securely in defense of relentlessly violent windstorms. On amicable forest line areas, the tree may chance to develop into a large, single-trunked tree with a diameter ranging from 11-20inches and attaining heights of 40 to 75 feet. These trees have a life span of 500 or more years. On cool, dry sites, the most ancient individuals of this species may be 1,000 years old! These old growth members have large boles and several thick, ascending branches. Nearer to timberline, individuals are thinner, shorter, and even exist in a gnarled, krummholz condition, performing some branch layering. Because seeds in these areas often sprout from the caches of animals, the trees may also appear to grow in a clumped, multi-stemmed manner.
A five-member crew assembled the morning of July 12, headed for southerly aspects surrounding East Fork Peak. The floods plaguing the Lightening Creek and associated East Fork Lightening Creek drainages have taken their toll on the trail the crew had intended to travel in accessing the higher elevation forests. Luckily, experience, good topographical maps, and modern-day GPS technology came well enough to their aid and after a short but brutally steep bushwhack they were on the trail and heading up, searching for Whitebark Pine habitat components. Habitats are dynamic, and a lot of variables come together at times creating unique micro-sites, making field identification not as cut and dry as one may suppose. Nonetheless, community patterns exist and have been identified through much of our regional mountain ranges. The community aggregation in which whitebark pine is the major tree species is called the Pinus lasiocarpus/Vaccinium scoparium/Luzula hitchcockii habitat type. Plants indicating these communities include grouse whortleberry, red mountain heath, rustyleaf menziesia, mountain arnica, beargrass, elk sedge, smooth woodrush, Parry rush, Ross’s sedge, and Idaho fescue. Beargrass was consistently present along the hike, as well as isolated patches of grouse whortleberry, but the most indicative associate, the smooth woodrush, failed to make an appearance as the crew reached prime growth elevations. Whitebark Pine was present as a minor component of the overstory, and old growth snags were identified along the ridgeline heading to East Fork Peak. However, the lack of Whitebark regeneration here presently, along with absence of strong habitat indicator species, makes this area undesirable for restoration management at the current time.
Two main threats exist to the Whitebark Pine in our region, aside from the already extreme environment the species endures. These include the Mountain Pine Beetle and Western Blister Rust fungus. Mountain Pine Beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae, is a type of bark beetle, about 5mm long with a tough, black exoskeleton. They lay their eggs in the bark of host trees, including Lodgepole, Whitebark, Ponderosa, Scotch, and Limber Pines. Under normal conditions, these insects have a role in ecosystem cycling and seral dynamics. However, the changing climate conditions, fire supression, and a symbiotic relationship with blue stain tree fungus proves to be more than several Rocky Mountain landscapes can cope with, and it has caused one of the worst insect infestations in the recent history. In our region, damage from the beetle is currently a secondary concern to the introduced blister rust pathogen, Cronartium ribicola, which attacks Whitebark and Western White Pine in our area. This fungus is exotic, likely arriving from Asia. It has a complicated life cycle which relies on both 5-needled pine trees as well as shrubs in the genus Ribes, commonly known as Gooseberry, and sustained, moist conditions. In our region, these conditions are common and readily available for this pathogen, and outbreaks have become widespread.
Southwesterly aspects around Moose Mountain were the latest target for FSPW crews. With its proximity to several alpine lakes and boggy environments, the most apparent disease carrier here -at least to us humans- were thick swaths of mosquito colonies (Oy vey!). With a little nerve and a lot of bug netting, members persevered and were greeted with some beautiful views of Moose and Blacktail Lakes. The assessment of the Whitebark Pine communities again found the species to be a minor component of the ecosystem. Blister Rust was present in many individuals. Again, this area seems unlikely to benefit from current restoration efforts.
Thank you to our all volunteers who sweated through the hard work and enjoyed time collecting data in the field: Jim Dubisson, Kate Walker, Bonnie Jakubos, Phil Degens, Jeff Kuhns, and Molly O’Reilly. It was a pleasure working alongside you!
Check back with the Winds in a couple of weeks for findings regarding our rare plant research in our native floating bogs! Thank you to all our volunteers for all that you do to keep restoration work possible!!!