Assessing Functional Role and Community Dynamics of Whitebark Pine at Alpine Treeline, Grand Teton National Park
Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is a keystone and foundation tree species in high elevation ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains. At alpine treelines along the eastern Rocky Mountain Front and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, whitebark pine often initiates tree islands through facilitation, thereby shaping vegetation pattern. This role will likely diminish if whitebark pine succumbs to white pine blister rust infection, climate change stress, and mountain pine beetle infestations. Here, we established baseline measurements of whitebark pineâs importance and blister infection rates at two alpine treelines in Grand Teton National Park. Our specific objectives were to: 1) examine the potential relationship between whitebark pine establishment and krummholz tree island formation at the upper alpine treeline ecotone in GTNP; 2) characterize blister rust infection rate and intensity at two treeline study areas and in whitebark pine growing both solitarily and within tree islands; and 3) characterize the biophysical environments a) where whitebark pine is/is not a majority tree island initiator, and b) with varying blister rust infection rates in treeline whitebark pine. In July 2015, we field-sampled treeline composition and blister rust infection in all krummholz whitebark pine in a total of 40 study plots. Preliminary results reveal: 1) that whitebark pine is a substantial component of treeline ecosystems, but is not a significant majority tree island initiator, and 2) blister rust infection levels for both study areas combined is 15.65%. Blister rust and mountain pine beetle interactions were not evident at the two study areas. This work provides important baseline measurements for understanding how community structure and composition may be altered given infestation by pathogens and pests in GTNP, especially in light of changing climate regimes.