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Native fungus could help restore whitebark pine forests

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By Evelyn Boswell MSU News Service

BOZEMAN – Cathy Cripps doesn’t seem to worry about the bears that watch her work, but she is concerned about the ghosts and skeletons she encounters.

The ghosts are whitebark pine forests that have been devastated by mountain pine beetles and white pine blister rust, according to Cripps, a Montana State University mycologist who studies fungi that grow in extreme environments. The skeletons are dead trees that no longer shade snow or produce pinecones, which hold the seeds that feed bears, red squirrels and birds like Clark’s nutcrackers. Shade at the top of watersheds keeps snow from melting too fast in the spring, preventing trout streams from drying up too early in the summer.

Cripps found hope in a native fungus called Siberian slippery jack (Suillus sibiricus). She conducted a three-year study in collaboration with Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada that showed a 10–15 percent increase in the survival rate of whitebark pine seedlings when Siberian slippery jack spores are injected into the soil around them. The injection takes place in nurseries before the seedlings are transplanted to the mountains.

That increase is significant and good news for those trying to reinstate whitebark pine trees to the north-central Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest, Cripps said. The whitebark pine is a keystone species that grows at high elevations where other trees cannot, but it has been declared an endangered species in Canada and awaits the designation in the U.S.

“That [jump in survival rates] might not sound like a big difference, but a small amount is a big deal considering the labor-intensive process,” Cripps said.

“The positive results have encouraged Waterton Lakes National Park to continue inoculating both whitebark and limber pine seedlings, to give them the best opportunity we can to establish and survive to maturity,” said Cyndi Smith, scientist emeritus at Waterton.

Participants in the research project – in addition to Cripps’ and Smith’s teams – were the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and volunteers from the U.S. and Canada.

To carry out the research project, the participants placed cages around whitebark pine trees to collect pinecones without interference from wildlife. Then they tested the cones to see if they were resistant to white pine blister rust, removed seeds by hand from the resistant cones, grew the seeds into seedlings and shipped them to the nursery in Glacier National Park.

“Cathy gave a presentation on some of her Yellowstone work at the annual science meeting of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation in Hailey, Idaho, in 2006,” Smith said, explaining how the collaboration began. “I was really taken with the idea that the ecosystem may have lost the beneficial fungi because our forests have been dead and dying for so long.”

Cripps and former graduate student Erin Lonergan drove to Waterton Lakes National Park and throughout the Greater Yellowstone area, hiked to the tops of mountains and collected the Siberian slippery jack and other fungi from whitebark pine forests. They later injected about 3 million spores into the soil around each seedling temporarily housed at the Glacier National Park nursery.

Volunteers then planted more than 1,000 seedlings in MSU’s test plots in Waterton and neighboring Glacier National Park. The two parks together comprise Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Lonergan, Cripps and Smith reported their success in the journals “American Forests” and “Nutcracker Notes,” a small publication hosted by the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.

“Results after three years showed that inoculation with these native fungi significantly improved the survival of rust-resistant seedlings, especially when inoculated seedlings were planted in burned areas near shelter objects such as stumps and logs,” Cripps said.

Land managers might want to incorporate MSU’s findings into their overall strategy for restoring whitebark pine forests, Cripps said, noting that large-scale inoculations are already planned for nurseries in Canada.

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