Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) forests cover approximately 10 to 15 percent of forest landscapes in the northern Rocky Mountains. Unfortunately, whitebark pine has been rapidly declining on many national forests in the northwestern United States during the past three decades because of blister rust infections, mountain pine beetle outbreaks, and fire exclusion. This valuable keystone species provides food to hundreds of wildlife species, including the grizzly bear, red squirrel, and Clark's nutcracker, thus whitebark pine’s preservation, protection, and conservation are vital. In addition, this high-elevation forest acts as a nursery for less hardy vegetation, regulates snow melt, and reduces soil erosion.
Whitebark pine populations are so low that future disturbances, especially those facilitated by climate change, could cause local extinctions. Tree thinning and prescribed burning have been used to successfully restore declining whitebark pine stands. However, these techniques are costly and somewhat difficult to implement on national forest land. New, effective, and less expensive techniques need to be developed for operational use. One such restoration technique is called daylighting, in which competing trees that surround the whitebark pine tree are removed. This technique has been successfully applied to other five-needle pine ecosystems, and managers are now applying it to whitebark pine restoration.
Our research, designed and implemented in collaboration with the Lolo and Bridger Teton National Forests, is documenting the effects of daylighting treatments on whitebark pine survival, vigor, and cone production.
Researchers are investigating the effects of daylighting treatments, thinning, and prescribed fire on wildland fuels, tree survival and mortality, and understory vegetation before and during treatment. Monitoring of the sites will continue for 15 years after treatment. The research is being performed at Prospect Mountain and Mink Peak on the Lolo National Forest as well as Grouse Mountain on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
In 2014, research plots at Mink Peak were thinned and burned using prescribed fire. Thinning and burning were used to create the daylighted area surrounding the selected whitebark pine trees, thereby reducing competition from other conifer species and limiting whitebark pine mortality. Measurements of the project’s success at Mink Peak began in early 2015. The Prospect Mountain plots were thinned, with prescribed burning scheduled for 2015.
For more information, please visit our Firelab project page.