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Restoration of whitebark pine forests in the northern Rocky Mountains, USA

Author(s): Robert E. Keane
Year Published: 2011

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) has been declining across much of its range in North America because of the combined effects of mountain pine beetle epidemics, fire exclusion policies, and widespread exotic blister rust infections. Whitebark pine seed is dispersed by a bird, the Clark's nutcracker, which caches seed in open, pattern-rich landscapes created by fire. This study was initiated in 1993 to investigate the effects of various restoration treatments on tree populations, fuel dynamics, and vascular plant cover on five sites in the U.S. northern Rocky Mountains. The objective of this study was to restore whitebark pine ecosystems using treatments that emulate the native fire regime-primarily combinations of prescribed fire, silvicultural cuttings, and fuel enhancement cuttings. The main effects assessed included tree mortality, fuel consumption, and vegetation response measured just prior to the treatment, 1 year after the treatment(s), and 5 years post-treatment. We found that, while all treatments that included prescribed fire created suitable nutcracker caching habitat with many birds observed caching seed in the burned areas, there has yet to be significant regeneration in whitebark pine. All burn treatments resulted in high mortality in both whitebark pine and subalpine fir (>40 percent). Fine woody fuel loadings marginally decreased after fire but coarse woody debris more than doubled because of falling snags. Vascular species decreased in cover by 20 to 80 percent and remained low for five years. While the treatments were successful in creating conditions that favor whitebark pine regeneration, the high level of blister rust mortality in surrounding seed sources has reduced available seed which then forced the nutcracker to reclaim most of the cached seed. Manual planting of whitebark pine seedlings is required to adequately restore these sites. A set of management guidelines is presented to guide restoration efforts.

Citation: Keane, Robert E. 2011. Restoration of whitebark pine forests in the northern Rocky Mountains, USA. In: Keane, Robert E.; Tomback, Diana F.; Murray, Michael P.; and Smith, Cyndi M., eds. 2011. The future of high-elevation, five-needle white pines in western North America: Proceedings of the High Five Symposium. 2010 June 28-30; Missoula, MT. Proceedings RMRS-P-63. Fort Collins, CO: USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. p. 338-347.
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - Second Order, Vegetation, Wildlife, Fire Regime, Fire Intensity / Burn Severity, Fire & Wildlife, Birds, Clark’s Nutcracker, Invertebrates, Mountain pine beetles, Fuels, Fuel Treatments & Effects, Prescribed Fire-use treatments, Management Approaches, Recovery after fire
Ecosystem(s): Alpine forest/krummholz, Subalpine wet spruce-fir forest, Subalpine dry spruce-fir forest
Document Type: Conference Proceedings
NRFSN number: 11900
FRAMES RCS number: 13788
Record updated: Oct 3, 2019