Researchers Study Morel Abundance After 2013 Rim Fire

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

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.

Students: Plant Survey Volunteers Needed!

Looking to pick up some valuable field experience this September? SEFS doctoral student Apryle Craig is recruiting several volunteers to help her survey plants at deer exclosures as part of a study investigating the impacts of recolonizing wolves on deer herbivory! You’ll gain experience with using a GPS, identifying plants, common plant survey techniques, installing trail cameras, repairing large herbivore exclosures, and more—all while spending time out in the forests of northeast Washington.

Job Description
You will be identifying and measuring plants at deer exclosures in Apryle’s study area. This work involves a lot of kneeling, bending and crouching, and surveys require a high attention to detail during repetitive tasks. Volunteers should be comfortable working long days, hiking cross-country across uneven terrain for about a quarter mile at any given time, and carrying large, awkward fencing supplies. The crew will be moving rolls of fencing and cutting wire. Volunteers may also have the opportunity to install trail cameras, review camera footage, and more.

Volunteers must provide their own transportation to the site near Tonasket, Wash. At that point, a shared vehicle will be used to access the survey sites. Volunteers are responsible for their own food.

Time commitment is flexible, depending on applications received. Please let her know your availability between September 1 and October 5.

How to Apply
Email Apryle with your resume, two references, and your availability from September 1 through October 5. Please indicate if you feel comfortable identifying plants of northeast Washington, and if you have CPR and/or first aid training. No previous field experience required. Plant identification skills are useful but not necessary, and your safety in the field is always the top priority.

Photo © Apryle Craig.

2016_06_Plant Survey Volunteers1


SEFS Hosts Observable Beehive for the Summer

On Tuesday, July 19, Alison Morrow from King 5 News brought a film crew to shoot some footage of the glass-enclosed observable beehive that we’re hosting this summer as part of the popular course, “Bees, Beekeeping and Pollination” (ESRM 491D for this quarter).

Evan estimates the hive in Winkenwerder is now home to some 4,000 bees.

Evan estimates the hive in Winkenwerder is now home to some 4,000 bees.

The course’s instructor, Evan Sugden, has been teaching the class for years through the Department of Biology, but construction of the new Life Sciences Building forced him and his bees out of their usual home at the Biology Greenhouse. So in addition to relocating six hives to neighborhood backyards around the area, including in Wedgewood and Madison Valley, Evan was able to move the course to a classroom in Winkenwerder Hall to keep the course running.

The observable hive, which has a vent to the outside, is fully safe and secure—for anyone worried about a bee allergy—and provides a wonderful teaching tool for students.

Watch the great segment on King 5, “Homeless honey bees find new home in UW science building,” which includes shots from the classroom and out at one of the neighborhood hives!

Photos © SEFS.

Evan Sugden

Evan Sugden and the observable beehive.

Professor Torgersen Helps Organize Riverscape Workshop in France

From June 22 to 24, USGS Landscape Ecologist and SEFS Affiliate Professor Christian Torgersen co-organized a workshop in Antony, France, “Putting the Riverscape Perspective into Practice: State of the Science and Future Directions in Freshwater Management.”

Sponsored and hosted by Irstea, the French National Research Institute of Science and Technology for Environment and Agriculture, the workshop focused on evaluating applications of the riverscape approach to address challenges for watershed and fisheries managers. The riverscape approach uses theories from landscape ecology and applies them to river ecosystems, and the workshop brought together scientists from Canada, France, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Photo © Christian Torgersen.

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Christian Torgersen, back row, second from far right, with the workshop team.



Director’s Message: Summer 2016

Earlier this summer, I headed out to the field with one of my graduate students to conduct some initial soil sampling on a new set of plots in the San Juan Islands. With the assistance of our cooperators, the work went extremely smoothly, and we were able to catch the morning boat off Waldron Island.

Our good fortune on that trip reminded me of the short-term nature of graduate research programs, and how little room for error we often have with our projects. You generally have only two to five years to complete your whole master’s or doctoral program, which means your research efforts have to be meticulously planned and executed, with as little backtracking as possible. Yet these programs are often a student’s first or second serious research effort, so even with the guidance of a supervisor and graduate committee, errors, delays, missteps and revised study plans are the norm.

Tom collecting samples in Sweden.

Tom collecting samples in Sweden.

Research, especially at the graduate level, is a process of trial and error. It’s about generating a hypothesis based on observation or existing knowledge in the published literature, creating a reasonable set of experiments and experimental methodologies to test the hypothesis, and executing the work in the field, greenhouse or laboratory. This process can be excruciatingly slow for someone on a short timeline, and it requires graduate students to be exceptionally focused and nimble—and willing to absorb a fair amount of surprise—in order to nurture their work to completion.

With time and schedules so compressed, after all, our students don’t get to relax or head home for the summer; they head out into the field. Indeed these months, though deceptively quiet around campus, are often the peak season of research for graduate students. They have to maximize their production in the span of several weeks, knowing that even with the best-planned programs, data collection can go terribly wrong. Whether in the lab or far afield, students can be at the mercy of stochastic events, such as a wildfire (especially last year), animal intervention such as elk browsing on electrical wiring, or a simple human error, such as forgetting to start a data recorder.

For my own MS experience in Montana, I was investigating whether elemental sulfur inoculated with acidifying microbes could enhance soil phosphorus availability for plant uptake in alkaline soils. I used a combination of laboratory, greenhouse and field investigation to test my hypotheses. During my second summer (and only full field season), a farmhand plowed right across our carefully laid research plots, eliminating one out of my three field sites. I was fortunate that our missing data didn’t undermine my overall project, but I’ve never forgotten that my first publication included a table where dashes replaced numbers for that one site.

Still, for all the hang-ups and headaches, the stress of a graduate research program is hugely rewarding and beneficial. Our students learn how to be resourceful and innovative while maintaining the scientific integrity of the original project. They discover that no matter how tired, dirty and hungry you might be on those long field excursions, you can never sacrifice the rigor of your research. You might not have another chance to conduct the study, and you can’t predict how cutting corners will impact your findings. While the pressure can be exhausting in the moment, it breeds precisely the discipline that will make your future research and career successful.

So as I look at the travel request forms from our students this summer, I can’t help but muse about the effort and planning that went into preparing for this field season. Dozens of projects are well underway or just getting started, including programs exploring fire, earthworms and phosphorus cycling in northern Japan; fisher reintroduction in northern Washington; carbon cycling in the Columbia river basin; pollution influence on microarthropods of forest canopies of western Washington; epiphytes and canopy soil development on the Olympic Peninsula; influence of salvage logging on site recovery in eastern Washington; the displacement of passerines (songbirds) by various human activities in Denali National Park in Alaska; and numerous other fascinating projects.

The next couple months offer a precious window of research activity for these graduate students. They’ll be learning on the go, adapting to a host of hiccups and hardships, and shepherding their research through it all. That experience, from the development of their projects to their growth as people and scientists, will be priceless.

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

New Movie, Captain Fantastic, Shot Partly at Pack Forest

This Friday, July 15, moviegoers around Seattle will get their first chance to see Captain Fantastic, a new film starring Viggo Mortensen that is partly set in the old-growth woods of Pack Forest—and shot almost entirely on location in Washington!

2016_07_Captain Fantastic1A drama that challenges the idea of what it means to be a parent, the story tracks a devoted father (Viggo) who has raised his family in isolation—and off the grid—in the forest until a tragedy forces them to leave their secluded paradise and journey into the outside world. Captain Fantastic‘s world premiere was at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in January, and it won the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Picture at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this spring.

Starting this Friday, we hope you get a chance to catch the film, and to spot those early scenes set in the gorgeous old-growth stand down at Pack Forest!

Photo of Mortensen below © Bleecker Street.

(Left to right) Nicholas Hamilton stars as Rellian, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Samantha Isler as Kielyr, George MacKay as Bo, and Viggo Mortensen as their dad Ben in Captain Fantastic. (Credit: Erik Simkins/ Bleecker Street)

From a scene in Captain Fantastic shot in Pack Forest: (left to right) Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Samantha Isler as Kielyr, George MacKay as Bo, and Viggo Mortensen as their dad Ben. (Credit: Erik Simkins/ Bleecker Street)


New Faculty Intro: Beth Gardner

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

Earlier this March, we welcomed one of our newest faculty members, Beth Gardner, who joins us as an assistant professor from the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at N.C. State University. Along with Professor Laura Prugh, Beth is one of two recent additions to the wildlife faculty at SEFS, and she brings enormous experience in quantitative ecology.

Beth grew up near Pittsburgh in Lone Pine, Pa., and as an undergrad at Allegheny College she first explored the intersection of math of environmental science.

When she arrived this spring, Beth jumped right in and taught QSci 381: Intro to Probability and Statistics, and future courses could include some form of statistical modeling.

When she arrived this spring, Beth jumped right in and taught QSci 381: Intro to Probability and Statistics, and future courses could include some form of statistical modeling.

Though she had a deeper personal interest in environmental studies at the time, she thought she was better at math and might settle on that route “by default.” Her compromise was to combine the subjects through a double major, and then to find a senior research project that also drew from both: creating a model of hydroponics and fish growth.

That was a long time ago, so the finer points of her first model are a little hazy, but the experience solidified her academic path. Beth applied to grad school at Cornell University and went on to earn a master’s and Ph.D. in natural resources. She then spent several years as a postdoc at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, where she worked on developing spatial capture-recapture models, which have become one of her core interests.

Her research today generally focuses on using models to assess wildlife populations. Depending on the data, Beth is able to estimate a wide range of demographic rates, such as survival, recruitment, distribution patterns, abundance, resource selection, size of home ranges and other habitat relationships. Put a simpler way, she says, one way to think of models is to imagine a couple people going out on a lake and catching some fish. They might catch 40, which is a good sample, but what they really want to know is how many total fish are in the lake. That’s where Beth’s work begins. “It’s figuring out patterns,” she says. “I take the errors and uncertainty in sampling to build models to tell you what you didn’t see.”

Filling in those data holes can be essential for conservation, management and ecological understanding, she says, especially as climate and land-use changes continue to alter the environment and affect wildlife populations in new and unexpected ways.

Beth reeling in a tuna as part of a project to tag and measure them.

Beth reeling in a tuna as part of a project to tag and measure them.

The next challenge is to figure out where to apply her research in the Pacific Northwest. After all, moving across the country effectively rebooted her research program, she says, so she’s still organizing her lab—the Quantitative Ecology Lab—and lining up her first projects. Broadly speaking, though, her lab at SEFS will address three main areas: the development of spatial capture-recapture models, mostly focused on data collected from genetic surveys (e.g., scat, hair-snares), camera trapping and small mammal surveys; the development and application of site-occupancy models to improve estimation of habitat relationships and species distributions; and the explicit incorporation of spatial auto-correlation into count models.

As she gets fully settled at SEFS, Beth will continue to work on a few other ongoing projects, including one looking at the abundance and distribution of seabirds in the western North Atlantic and the Great Lakes, and how those populations might be affected by the anticipated development of offshore wind energy power installations (she has a half-time postdoc, Evan Adams, working with her on this research). She’s also helping a few graduate students wrap up their degrees back at N.C. State, and she anticipates welcoming her first students at SEFS around January 2017.

We are thrilled to have Beth in our school, and we hope you get a chance to meet and welcome her as soon as possible!

Photos © Beth Gardner.

Beth at a field station in Finse, Norway. “Technically, I was hiking,” she says, “but it was early July and the snow was insane.”

Beth at a field station in Finse, Norway. “Technically, I was hiking,” she says, “but it was early July and the snow was insane.”


SEFS Grad Students Contribute “Tree Truths” to Art Exhibition

This summer, local artist Cheryl A. Richey is showcasing a selection of her abstract “tree spirit” paintings and charcoal drawings in the UW Tower’s Mezzanine Gallery. Her show, Arbor Intelligence, explores the subtle power and mystery of trees, and the exhibition includes 30 printed “tree truths” that capture a range of scientific facts and interpretations about trees and forests.

One of Cheryl's "tree spirit" paintings, Pyrophyte 2 (acrylic, collage, burned canvas)

One of Cheryl’s “tree spirit” paintings, Pyrophyte 2 (acrylic, collage, burned canvas)

Cheryl drew from several sources to create the “tree truths,” including Tree:  A Life Story, by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady. For 12 of them, though, she partnered with SEFS graduate students—including Sean Callahan, Sean Jeronimo, Caitlin Littlefield , Korena Mafune, Allison Rossman and Jorge Tomasevic—to produce “truths” from their own research and experiences!

Arbor Intelligence opens today, Tuesday, July 5, and will run through the end of September. The UW Tower is open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and it is accessible to anyone with a Husky card.

We encourage you to stop by and visit the exhibition this summer, and also to take a look through the “tree truths” that will appear with the show (with our graduate students listed in bold below next to the truths they provided!

Tree Truths

1. Trees are the “lungs” of the earth.
2. Trees often have lifelong – ‘best friend’ – relationships with mycorrhizal fungi. Without these fungi, woody plants may never have evolved on land.
3. Forests absorb more than 25 percent of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities.
4. Forests constantly replenish Earth’s supply of fresh water.
5. Forests influence weather patterns.
6. Trees are communal and share sun and water resources via their root systems.
7. Riparian forests are critically important to river ecology, which benefits fish and wildlife. 8. Chlorophyll and hemoglobin are similar in structure with only one atom difference between them: chlorophyll’s one magnesium atom enables plants to capture light, whereas hemoglobin’s one iron atom allows blood to capture oxygen.
9. Trees’ “dynamic spiral” growth pattern is similar to other patterns found in nature, like spiral galaxies and DNA coils.
10. Lodgepole pine cones can wait 50 years for fire to open the cones and release the seeds.
11. Mature Douglas-fir trees can tolerate fire because of their nonflammable, thick bark (up to 12 inches thick).
12. It can take 36 hours for water to move from roots to canopy in a mature Douglas-fir tree.
13. Needles contain little sap, which makes them more resistant to freezing.
14. When invaded by disease, a tree seals off the infected area to control its spread.
15. Because of its smaller surface area, a needle transpires less water than a broadleaf, so conifers do better than deciduous trees in sunny environments with long dry periods.
16. Some evergreens, like the monkey puzzle tree, keep their needles for up to 15 years. 17. Rainforests lift and transpire huge amounts of water every day, creating great rivers of mist that flow across the continent. This water condenses and falls as rain.
18. Bristlecone pine trees regularly keep their needles for 20 to 30 years, and occasionally as long as 45 years. (Sean Jeronimo)
19. Bristlecone pine is the oldest known non-clonal organism in the world. One specimen is older than 4,800 years, and another is older than 5,000! (Sean Jeronimo)
20. The only living tissues of a tree are its foliage, buds and inner bark—which usually make up less than 1 percent of a tree’s biomass. (Sean Jeronimo)
21. The lodgepole pine spans an elevation range from sea level to higher than 10,000 feet, and ranges from swampy wetlands to the near-desert pumice plateau. (Sean Jeronimo) 22. Most trees are monoecious, meaning each individual bears both male and female reproductive organs. However, some tree species, such as Pacific yew, have separate male and female individuals. (Sean Jeronimo)
23. High above the forest floor, organic soils form on branches of Washington’s old-growth rainforests. These ‘canopy soils’ promote habitat for a wide array of unique organisms. It’s a whole new world that has barely been explored. (Korena Mafune)
24. The endangered marbled murrelet spends most of its life at sea, but the bird exclusively nests on mosses growing high in the canopy of coniferous trees near the coastline. (Sean Callahan)
25. About 80 percent of vegetative diversity in a forest lies in the “understory,” including saxifrages, grasses, biscuit roots and roses. These beautiful and unique plants complement the “overstory” structure and composition. (Allison Rossman)
26. Stick your nose into a black crevice between the red-orange bark plates of a big ponderosa pine. Smells like vanilla! (Caitlin Littlefield)
27. In autumn, deciduous trees respond to shorter days and cooler temperatures with colorful foliage caused by the breakdown of green chlorophyll in leaves. But with warmer temperatures and drought conditions lasting longer, some trees are dropping their leaves before they change color. (Caitlin Littlefield)
28. In a forest under attack by a pest or pathogen, you may actually count more trees—lots of young ones—than before the outbreak, because some species make a last-ditch effort to reproduce before death. (Caitlin Littlefield)
29. Dead trees are important for biodiversity. They are a source of food and shelter for insects, fungi, spiders, and many bird species, as well as small mammals, snakes, lizards, and bats. Dead trees are rich with life, and we should celebrate them, too! (Jorge Tomasevic)
30. Pyrophytes are plants, including trees (some species of pine, oak, eucalypts and giant sequoias) that have adapted to tolerate fire. In some species, fire aides them in competing with less fire-resistant plants for space and nutrients.

Painting © Cheryl A. Richey