High elevation white pines and the headwater ecosystems they occupy are threatened by the non-native lethal disease white pine blister rust (WPBR). Many ecosystems in the West are already affected and the Southern Rocky Mountains are at the front of the WPBR infection. These landscapes are susceptible to invasion and the continued spread of the pathogen over time is inevitable. We expect high frequencies of pine mortality upon WBPR invasion. This will result in reduced genetic diversity in the species and the implications of this on population resilience is unknown.
While the pine populations are still healthy we have the opportunity to assess the natural genetic diversity and archive that diversity with seed and tissue collections for conservation. This project has done this type of collection for Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine.
The geographic patterns of the genetic diversity of Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine were quantified. The patterns of variation have guided efficient and comprehensive range-wide gene conservation collections for the species. Gene conservation collections for limber pine and Great Basin bristlecone pine have also been archived.
Patterns of genetic diversity help prioritize area of conservation interest and management. Gene conservation collections are providing resources for the (1) identification of genetic resistance to WPBR and other adaptive traits, (2) definition of seed transfer guidelines, and (3) development of improved planting material for restoration projects.
The collection also provide a base line from which future collections can be compared to assess shifts in diversity with climate change, WPBR, and other stressors over time. Proactive gene conservation is a component of the Proactive Strategy for Sustaining High Elevation Ecosystems.
High elevation pine forests are valued by people for their aesthetics and longevity as well as their ecosystem services. These pines often define the very altitudinal limits of tree growth and help capture snow and mediate its melt at the headwaters of western Northern American watersheds. Their large seeds also serve as food for many animals that play important roles in the foodchain of the high mountain wildlife.