Researchers Study Morel Abundance After 2013 Rim Fire

Few mushrooms are as beloved as the morel. From recreational pickers jealously protecting their secret hunting spots, to world-class chefs coveting them for their springtime recipes, morels have acquired an almost mythic status and even have a few festivals in their honor (one in Michigan has been running for 55 years). Yet despite the enormous popularity of morels, surprisingly little research has quantified how the mushrooms respond to one of the greatest disturbances in their natural habitat: a forest fire.

The other coauthors with SEFS ties include Mark Swanson (’99, B.S.; ’07, Ph.D.), now a professor in the School of the Environment at Washington State University, and two former SEFS undergrads, Sienna Hiebert (’12, B.S.), who is running her own business, Lost Creek, LLC, and Tucker Furniss (’11, B.S.), now a graduate student at Utah State.

The other coauthors with SEFS ties include Mark Swanson (’99, B.S.; ’07, Ph.D.), now a professor in the School of the Environment at Washington State University, and two former SEFS undergrads, Sienna Hiebert (’12, B.S.), who is running her own business, Lost Creek, LLC, and Tucker Furniss (’11, B.S.), now a graduate student at Utah State.

Understanding that response is fairly crucial, as morels tend to proliferate most significantly in the first year following a fire. So several researchers—including six with ties to the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS)—sought to address that hole in the literature with a new paper just published in Forest Ecology and Management, “Post-fire morel (Morchella) mushroom abundance, spatial structure, and harvest sustainability.”

Led by Professor Andrew Larson (’03, B.S.; ’09, Ph.D.) from the University of Montana, the study provides the most comprehensive picture yet of morel numbers and distribution after a wildfire, as well as the most concrete data to help forest managers set policies for sustainable morel harvesting (which is especially important since the mushrooms grow and are collected almost exclusively in the wild).

The project came together after the Rim Fire in the Sierra Nevada—the third-largest wildfire in California’s history—burned through parts of Yosemite National Park from August to October 2013. Among the affected areas was the Yosemite Forest Dynamics Plot, a long-term research site with years of accumulated data overseen by principal investigators Larson and Professor Jim Lutz (’05, M.S.; ’08, Ph.D.) from Utah State University.

“One of the benefits of a long-term plot is you can layer on additional studies,” says Alina Cansler (’15, Ph.D.), the second author on the study and a research ecologist at SEFS. So the research team was able to assess the morel population alongside other typical post-fire measurements, such as number of trees killed, fuel burned and decrease in forest biomass. Also, at the time of the wildfire, forest managers had backburned part of the area to stop the fire from burning further into Yosemite National Park, but otherwise allowed it to burn naturally under fairly dry fuel conditions—opening a rare opportunity to study a characteristic morel response.

The Findings
The following May, in the spring when morels typically fruit after a fire, the researchers surveyed 1,119 small sample plots in the study area. They found, first of all, an incredible volume of morels, and they estimated the white-fir/sugarpine forests in Yosemite have an average of 1,693 morels per hectare. That translates to 1,083,520 morels per year, given the typical area that burns within that type of forest in Yosemite! Alina notes, moreover, that that is an underestimate of the total number of morels in the park, since morels also fruit after fire in other forest types, and fruiting of some species of morels are not tied to fire.

Alina Cansler discovers a morel in the study area.

Alina Cansler discovers a morel in the study area, which the authors estimate could be home to 4,183 morels per acre.

Two other big discoveries were that the highest occurrence of morels occurred on ground that had been 100-percent burned by the fire, and that the morels were generally found clumped closely together and distributed unevenly across the forest. In the paper, the researchers note that the practical application of this uneven distribution is that “if you find one mushroom, carefully search the area within about 3 m (10 feet) and continue to search out to about 7 m (23 feet), as additional mushrooms are likely to occur in this neighborhood.”

The latter findings will require further research to figure out the mechanisms behind them, says Alina, such as whether mycelial colonies (the belowground parts of the morels) are present in the soil before or after the fire, and how variations in the presence of the mycelium, forest vegetation  and fire severity affect distribution patterns. “We still don’t know exactly what [the morels] are responding to in the environment,” she says. “There’s a lot more work to be done.”

More immediately, though, the paper’s estimation of the number of morels in the forest—coupled with a thorough literature review of similar sites in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska—could have direct management implications. Until now, managers didn’t have a clear picture of how many mushrooms are in the park on a given year. Current regulations in Yosemite limit pickers to one pint of morels a day, yet Alina says this research supports the potential for a more liberal, yet still sustainable, recreational harvest in the park.

“What stands out from this study,” she says, “is that morels are such a culturally important non-timber forest product, yet there had been very few reputable, statistically valid samples of their abundance after fire.”

But this latest research, with its large number of sampling points in an intensively monitored forest plot, fills at least one gap in the literature and provides strong evidence to guide the management of forests with morels—in California and around the Pacific Northwest. Next up: Figuring out precisely how and why morels respond so vigorously after a fire!

Photos © Alina Cansler.

SEFS Researchers Awarded Grant to Study Fire Management in Washington

Three researchers at SEFS—including Research Associates Derek Churchill and Van Kane, as well as Research Ecologist Alina Cansler—are part of a team that was just awarded a $383,565 grant through the federal Joint Fire Science Program.

The project, “Landscape Evaluations and Prescriptions for Post-Fire Landscapes,” will focus on landscape approaches to post-fire management in north-central Washington. Specifically, the researchers will be studying recent fires in the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville national forests, with the goal of assisting forest managers in better understanding the effects of large wildfires on landscape conditions—and facilitating science-driven approaches to post-fire management.

Professor Andrew Larson from the University of Montana is the principal investigator, and $196,000 of the total grant will go to support the SEFS researchers. Other team members include Paul Hessburg and Nick Povak from the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station; Professor Jim Lutz from Utah State University; and Richy Harrod from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

2016_04_Fire Management Grant1Project Overview
Wildfires in the western United States are modifying the structure and composition of forests at rates that far exceed mechanical and prescribed fire treatments. Despite the huge number of acres affected by wildfires each year, our scientific understanding and social license regarding how to both critically assess and manage post-fire landscapes to maximize resilience to future disturbances is limited. Millions of burned acres are thus being left to recover naturally with little landscape-level analysis of the ecosystem structure and function that is likely to result. Credible stewardship of western forests must consider the effects of recent and future wildfires in a whole-landscape framework.

The “work” of wildfires can be beneficial in terms of reducing fuel loads (Lydersen et al. 2012), enhancing fire resistant species and structure (Larson et al. 2013), and creating early-seral habitat (Swanson et al. 2011). However, many recent wildfires are creating large high-severity patches in dry forest systems that were historically dominated by low- and mixed-severity fires (Cansler and McKenzie 2014). This may be creating conditions that are more susceptible to future high-severity disturbances or shifts to new ecosystem states that will not sustain the same ecological and social functions. We will provide managers with a framework to quantify the extent to which fires moved forest structure and composition towards or away from desired conditions by evaluating wildfire effects relative to reference conditions.

In north-central Washington, 2014 and 2015 were record-setting wildfire years, burning hundreds of thousands of acres on the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville national forests. These fires burned through a wide range of treated and untreated conditions at a range of severities, including re-burning past wildfires that received a range of post-fire management activities. These large fire years have presented a huge challenge to managers and collaborative stakeholder groups in terms of how to assess the need for post-fire management actions. Relatively little post-fire management has been proposed or implemented.

The researchers will address both ecological and management questions by:

  • Investigating how wildfires are shaping the temporal and spatial patterns of vegetation and fuels as influenced by combinations of annual weather, local climate, topography, prior fire, and prior management.
  • Assessing how forests have recovered from previous fires, with special focus on the effects of prior management.
  • Building tools to assist managers and stakeholder groups to assess how future fires may affect forest structure, and determine what combinations of post-fire management and green tree treatments will best enhance future forest resilience.
  • Showing which landscape assessment tools allow the best understanding of patterns of pre- and post-fire forest structure by comparing several tools across our study area with a particular focus on understanding and demonstrating the use of airborne LiDAR data.

Photos courtesy of Derek Churchill.

2016_04_Fire Management Grant2

Alina Cansler Earns National Wilderness Award

Last year, SEFS doctoral candidate Alina Cansler collaborated on a paper that recently won the 2013 Excellence in Wilderness Stewardship Research Award, which will be presented at a ceremony for the National Wilderness Awards in Missoula, Mont., on January 28!

Alina Cansler

Cansler measuring shrubs in Yosemite.

Co-sponsored by the International Journal of Wilderness and the U.S. Forest Service, the award recognizes the contribution of a timely research endeavor that informs and responds to wilderness stewardship challenges. Cansler and her coauthors won for their 2013 paper, “Latent Resilience in Ponderosa Pine Forest: Effects of Resumed Frequent Fire,” which was originally published in Ecological Applications and addresses forest structure and composition in the Bob Marshall Wilderness following the reintroduction of fire after decades of exclusion.

Andrew Larson, the lead author on the publication, earned his Ph.D. from SEFS in 2009, and the SEFS connections don’t end there, as Affiliate Professor Don McKenzie and Jeremy Littell won the award in 2011!

Congratulations, Alina and Andrew!

Winning Publication
Andrew J. Larson, R. Travis Belote, C. Alina Cansler, Sean A. Parks, and Matthew S. Dietz 2013. Latent resilience in ponderosa pine forest: effects of resumed frequent fire. Ecological Applications 23:1243–1249.

Photos © Alina Cansler.