High in the mountains around Bend, undergraduate college students and plant geneticists have been busy collecting needles from whitebark pine trees for a research project that could help save the threatened tree species.

Although still in its preliminary stages, the project will eventually allow researchers to evaluate the genetic health of whitebark pine populations and be a potentially effective tool to control the negative effects of white pine blister rust, according to project leader Seth Ganzhorn, a Natural Resources and Environmental Science instructor at OSU-Cascades.

Whitebark pine is Central Oregon’s highest elevation tree species and has considerable influence on local water resources, affecting where snow is distributed on mountains during winter. Shade thrown by the trees keeps higher elevation snowpack intact through summer, allowing a more continuous water supply during the dry summer months.

But many of the trees are fighting for survival due to a host of threats, including climate change, beetle infestations and the effects of white pine blister rust, a non-native fungus.

Ganzhorn, along with undergraduate students from Oregon State University-Cascades and researchers from the Deschutes National Forest, believe the genetics project will improve sustainability and management strategies for whitebark pine trees.

The disappearance of this tree could cause a chain reaction of events that would alter the entire ecosystem.

“Once the trees die, they also lose their needles and shading ability. This results in more sunlight hitting the snow, causing it to melt faster and earlier — potentially resulting in increased erosion and lower late season flows of streams,” said Ganzhorn.

As part of the project, OSU-Cascade undergraduates collected pine needles from 450 trees at Mount Bachelor, Paulina Peak and Tumalo Mountain. DNA from the whitebark pine needles will be extracted and analyzed by the students.

The DNA data could help researchers determine genetic diversity among the three research sites, which may suggest that birds are distributing whitebark pine seeds across multiple locations. The researchers will also investigate if there is a genetic signal in trees that are resistant to white pine blister rust.

“Understanding the genetic diversity of the current subalpine tree populations will help guide future management, restoration and conservation strategies to promote sustainability and resilience,” said Ganzhorn.

The hope is that individual whitebark pine trees that are resistant to white pine blister rust can be identified.

A long-standing and related project run by the Deschutes National Forest is helping to collect seeds that will be identified by their level of resistance to the fungus. Collecting the seeds is complicated by the fact they are quickly devoured by the Clark’s nutcracker, also known as the woodpecker crow.

To collect them, U.S. Forest Service workers must place small cages over whitebark pine cones to protect them from the birds. If not protected, the Clark’s nutcracker will pry open the cones and naturally disperse the seeds.

The caged cones are collected by National Forest researchers and sent to the Dorena Genetic Resource Center in Cottage Grove. There the seeds are manually removed from the cone and planted. Seedlings are then exposed to white pine blister rust and screened on their level of resistance to the fungus.

Eventually, the resistant seedlings will be planted in the high elevation forest to reestablish whitebark populations. The Forest Service also assists the young trees in their early growth by removing competitors, such as lodgepole pine and mountain hemlock. Removal of competitors provides more water for the seedlings.

“We hope the information generated by this study will contribute to our conservation and management efforts focused on whitebark pine,” said Matt Horning, a geneticist for the Deschutes National Forest who serves as co-lead on the project.

“An understanding of the genetic diversity and structure of Central Oregon whitebark pine populations will help inform our seed collection activities,” he added.

White pine blister rust was accidentally introduced to North America around the turn of the 20th century and typically kills a tree once it encircles the main trunk of the tree. It affects whitebark pine as well as other five-­needle pines. Whitebark pines are also threatened by climate change, fire suppression and mountain pine beetles.

Bend’s municipal watershed, which is charged with water from Tumalo and Bridge creeks, could be negatively affected if nothing is done to protect whitebark pines, said Ganzhorn.

“These creeks and the ecosystem services they provide could likely be affected by changes in snowmelt from higher elevation ecosystems where whitebark pine is distributed,” said Ganzhorn. “Additionally, altered streamflow could affect recreation on our waterways, not to mention wildlife species that depend on natural streamflows.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, mkohn@bendbulletin.com