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It's Fungs vs Fungus to Save the Whitebark Pine

Dec 12, 2014 05:19 PM EST
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It's well past October, but it seems like the ghostly whitebark pine forests of Canada didn't get the memo. These stark white and skeletal trees are having a hard time recovering this winter, after being devastated by mountain pine beetles and infections of white pine blister rust. Now researchers are proposing that a friendly local fungus could get these forests in a more lively spirit for the holiday season.

These forests are exceptionally important to ecosystems in the Northern United States and Canada because their pine cones, boasting an unusual purple hue, hold the seeds that feed bears, red squirrels and Clark's nutcracker birds. More importantly, the thick needles of these trees catch and shade the winter season's snowfall, preventing the snow from melting too quickly at the start of spring. A snow melt likewise helps keep trout streams from drying up too fast by the start of summer.

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer of these trees are making it to winter because of beetle predation coupled with an invasive fungus (Cronartium ribicola), which causes white pine blister rust.

It can take years for the disease to kill a mature pine, but once an infection takes hold, it's difficult to fight, according to the US Forest Service. Worse still, the fungus has been found to interfere even with the growth of seedlings brought in in an effort to restore these essential forests. (Scroll to read on...)

Now Cathy Cripps of Montana State University, in collaboration with the Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, is suggesting that foresters fight fungus with fungus.

In a three year study, Cripps and her colleagues found that soil injections of the native fungus called Siberian slippery jack (Suillus sibiricus) can help boost the survival rate of whitebark pine seedlings by 10 to 15 percent.

"That might not sound like a big difference, but a small amount is a big deal considering the labor-intensive process [of planting these seedlings]," Cripps explained in a statement.

"Instead of being bad guys, these fungi are beneficial," she said of the slippery jack. "They help plants take up nitrogen and phosphorous from the soil."

And these heightened conditions make it harder for blister rust to take hold.

"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," added Cyndi Smith, a scientist with the national park.

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