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Researchers work to restore iconic West Virginia red spruce forests 

Researchers work to restore iconic red spruce forests in West Virginia

Lacy Rucker, a doctoral student at West Virginia University, searches for salamanders living in red spruce ecosystems. Researchers at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design are studying ways to restore the red spruce as it is threatened by rising temperatures. Credit: West Virginia University

Clearing and wildfires decimated red spruce, once the dominant, upland tree species in West Virginia, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today, only 10% of the state’s historic red spruce cover remains and faces a new threat in climate change.

West Virginia University researchers Donald Brown and James Thompson of the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design are working to restore some of the original tree habitat by studying the long-term effects of warming temperatures on red spruce and the creatures that call that ecosystem home. .

The animals inside

Brown, a research assistant professor of wildlife resources, focuses largely on animal populations within the red spruce ecosystem. Notable species that inhabit the forest include the northern Virginia flying squirrel and the native brown trout. Brown is a herpetologist and has also studied the endangered Cheat Mountain salamander, a federally protected species endemic to West Virginia. It lives only in the high-altitude spruce forest. However, as the climate warms, the red-backed eastern salamander, a species of lower elevation, has begun to move into the range of the Cheat Mountain salamander and compete for resources.

Brown’s research on the Cheat Mountain salamander was recently published in the Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management and in Forest Ecology and Management.

While Brown has focused on the relationship between the Cheat Mountain salamander and its forest habitat, he has also looked at the role red spruce restoration plays in the success of different species and whether a restored forest is as suitable a habitat as a jungle. He and his students also conducted a bird study to quantify birds specifically associated with red spruce forests, published recently in Ecological indicators.

One finding is clear: Climate change is a serious threat to the red spruce because of where it grows.

The northern tree species follows cool, wet ridges from the Appalachians to North Carolina, but rising temperatures are limiting its chances of survival.

“They’re already at the top of the mountain,” Brown said. “There’s nowhere to go. Some of the research has been pretty dire. Essentially we’re projecting that we’re going to lose red spruce this century.”

Current genetic research offers some hope. Researchers can identify seeds most likely to remain in warming temperatures and manipulate what is planted for the best chance of survival.

from the ground up

While Brown’s research looks at red spruce forests as habitats for other species, Thompson takes a soil scientist’s unique perspective. Working with the US Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to study soils in red spruce forests, his research points to a dynamic link between the trees and the rich, spongy soil from which they grow, even at the southern end of their range. .

“The soil types and our climate are good, so that red spruce can survive,” he said. “But as red spruce ecosystems persist, they begin to alter the soil even more and create certain characteristics that are unique to West Virginia. When we find a red spruce, we find certain types of soils.”

Using this logic, Thompson and colleagues argue that the presence of those same soils elsewhere may indicate a former habitat of red spruce. Likewise, the soils of both modern and historic spruce populations—the latter being sites where forests existed before being cleared—provide a map that can serve as a guideline for future restoration plantings.

“The bottom is essentially a long-term record of the past,” he said. “They bear the imprint of what happened in the past and that imprint continues. While some of those areas haven’t had spruce trees for 100 years or more, they remember supporting red spruce forests because they preserve that evidence in the ground .”

Research indicates that a site that was suitable for red spruce a century ago is today more likely to support a successful restoration effort.

“That’s why I think it can be helpful to use soils as a guideline for red spruce recovery,” Thompson said. He added that paying attention to soils is an important part of recovery efforts because red spruce soils store more carbon than non-spruce forest soils.

“If you’re concerned about carbon sequestration and climate change, restoring red spruce forests will give you that carbon stock advantage,” he said. However, the benefits of red spruce soils extend beyond carbon sequestration, as they have greater water holding capacity. This changes the hydrology of the watersheds and limits downstream flooding.

A recipe for success

In addition to their own research, Brown and Thompson are collaborating with the Central Appalachian Red Spruce Restoration Initiative. CASRI was founded to restore red spruce in the landscape. Over the past two decades, the initiative has become more focused and now consists of more than a dozen governmental and non-governmental entities, including the Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and The Nature Conservancy. Many WVU scientists have contributed to the initiative’s efforts; now the research of both Brown and Thompson plays an important role in advancing the restoration.

“Over the years, I just got more and more involved in the partnership,” Brown said. “I’ve been trying to find ways to do research that will inform their mission. The actual planting they’ve done has grown exponentially over that period.”

He believes it is the collective effort that drives the organization’s progress, and ultimately the success of the volunteer initiative.

A restoration guide

Brown and Thompson collaborate on a guide to red spruce restoration. The effort is a vital initiative between Davis College scientists, government agencies and non-governmental organizations.

“The book has more than 30 different contributors who are part of the partnership,” Brown said. “We are trying to provide an up-to-date synthesis of what we know about the ecology of red spruce, as well as the restoration actions that have taken place and will take place in the future.”

Thompson and some of his former graduate students contributed to two chapters of the book. One deals with the bottoms of the red spruce ecosystem and how they relate to identifying potential recovery sites. The second chapter examines the recovery potential arising from WVU’s collaboration with Staatsbosbeheer and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. It makes connections between management decisions and how the ecosystem may or may not change in response.

As restoration efforts continue with input from researchers such as Brown and Thompson, red spruce grows slowly compared to other trees. This means that today’s seedlings will survive the hands that plant them for a long time.

“We won’t see the results in our lifetimes,” Brown said. “We’re really looking at decades to centuries to get to this mature forest stage that we’re ultimately interested in.”


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More information:
Donald J. Brown et al, Microhabitat Associations for the Threatened Cheat Mountain Salamander in relation to Early Stage Red Spruce Restoration Areas, Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management (2022). DOI: 10.3996/JFWM-21-042

Lacy E. Rucker et al, Long-term occupation dynamics of the endangered Cheat Mountain salamander and its competitors in relation to linear habitat fragmentation, Forest Ecology and Management (2021). DOI: 10.116/j.foreco.2021.119847

Provided by West Virginia University


Quote: Researchers working to restore iconic red spruce forests in West Virginia (2022, Aug. 3), retrieved Aug. 4, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-08-iconic-west-virginia-red-spruce. html

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