Modeling Blister Rust Incidence in Whitebark Pine at Northern Rocky Mountain Alpine Treelines: A Geospatial Approach

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Virginia Tech

The status of whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), a foundation and keystone species and a pioneer establisher at alpine treeline, is threatened by the invasive and exotic fungal pathogen (Cronartium ribicola) that causes white pine blister rust in five-needled pines. Originally thought to be limited to moderate environments, the disease is now found extensively throughout colder and dryer regions east of the Continental Divide, including alpine treeline. My research objective was to determine how blister rust infection of treeline whitebark pine varies across Glacier National Park. I present findings from field sampling conducted in July 2008 in Glacier National Park, Montana. Thirty plots were randomly placed at 6 different treeline study sites on the eastern slopes of the Continental Divide. Vegetative and geomorphic characteristics, along with presence/absence and level of blister rust intensity, were detailed within each plot. Vegetation measurements included conifer composition, tree island dimensions and windward growth patterns, evidence and intensity of blister rust, as well as shelter type. Field-measured topographic characteristics included elevation, aspect, and slope. In addition, high resolution GPS-derived DEMs were created at each plot in order to model the land surface and calculate detailed environmental variables in a GIS. Environmental and blister rust intensity variables were used to determine spatial correlates of blister rust infection at treeline. The resulting blister rust prediction model (P < 0.001, F(4,25) = 6.79, R2 = 0.52, Adjusted R2 = 0.44) suggests that areas exhibiting increased wind speed, northwest facing slopes, high flow accumulation rates, and close proximity to perennial streams have a higher likelihood of blister rust intensity, specifically total canker density. Results of this research may contribute to the understanding of the dynamics of this disease, and prove useful in whitebark ecosystem management and conservation.

landscape pathology, landscape ecology, topography, DEM, GIS, GPS, biogeography