On a Monday afternoon in November, four Flathead Valley Community College students traipsed through a copse of pine trees. The eight-acre stand is just a five-minute walk from the college campus, nestled against the banks of the Stillwater River behind the tennis courts.
The majority of trees here are giant century-old ponderosa pines, the official state tree of Montana, easily distinguishable by their tall canopies and thick, orange-red bark that smells like vanilla.
And they’re in trouble.
“Does it have any exit holes?” FVCC student Abbie Steffen asked her partner who was measuring the trunk of a nearby tree.
“Yeah, it has eight,” Aspen Swartzenberger replied, indicating a series of small pinholes in the trunk indicative of a Western pine beetle infestation.
Steffen peered up at the pine tree the students were discussing through a relascope, a forest inventory instrument that measures a tree’s height, basal area and diameter. The duo estimated the tree’s health from the percentage of browned needles and the size of the canopy.
This data collection is part of an FVCC forest inventory class project that aims to track the spread of western pine beetle infection in ponderosa pine trees both in the grove on campus and around the Flathead Valley at large. To achieve large-scale data collection, students in FVCC’s Natural Resource, Conservation and Management program partnered with the Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS) to launch a citizen science project, allowing interested members of the public to take part in the effort.
“We know ponderosas have been experiencing some decline in pockets throughout the valley, but we’re not sure exactly where the pine beetles are showing up or what kind of conditions are showing the most significant declines,” FVCC natural resources professor Tim Eichner said. “Hopefully this data will help solidify our understanding about how forest management can improve and defend against the western pine beetle. It’s going to open up a lot of doors to questions, and hopefully some answers as well.”
Following a major hailstorm in the early summer of 2022, researchers with FLBS noticed a swath of ponderosa pines near Bigfork that appeared in decline. Further investigation showed that instead of just suffering physical damage, many of the trees showed exit holes characteristic of beetle infestation.
Physically damaged trees — whether from hail, fire, disease or other means — are susceptible to infestation by western pine beetles, which exclusively target the ponderosa pine. The insects attack the trees by boring through the bark and laying eggs in spaghetti-like tunnels called galleries. In time, the larvae will eat away at the inner layers of the tree trunk, blocking nutrient flow and within a year a tree will begin to lose bark and needles will turn brown.
Diane Whited, a GIS/remote sensing analyst with the FLBS, began monitoring the trees near Bigfork last year. Using drone and satellite imagery, as well as specially designed software, Whited can identify tree health through broad swaths of forest.
“This kind of imagery helps us monitor these trees overtime, instead of just being able to do so when we have people on the ground,” said Whited, who is helping Eichner with the FVCC capstone course. “But one reason we need citizen scientists to help is because we don’t have the manpower, time or money to go out there and collect data on individual trees ourselves.”
Under the tutelage of Whited and Eichner, a natural resources class this spring developed a protocol for mapping out ponderosa pines throughout the valley and created a survey app for citizen scientists.
“The biggest thing was making it accessible to the public because they’re not going to have our tools, they’re not going to know all of the language we use,” said Steffen, who designed the app. “This is a way to get accurate information without leaving open-ended questions.”
Using the app, volunteer tree mappers can log any ponderosa pine they come across. The app goes through a series of straight forward survey questions that volunteers answer about a tree’s location, size, distance from other trees, and health condition. All entries are uploaded to a live map showing the results. As of Nov. 8, citizen scientists had logged 92 trees, half of which showed signs of pine beetle infestation.
FVCC students hosted two seminars in October to educate volunteers on tree identification and the surveying project, which can be viewed online, and are putting out the call for all interested citizens to take part.
“People in Montana just really love the ponderosa,” Whited said of the response from the community. “It’s a great tree aesthetically, it smells good, and people just seem to be passionate about them, whether out on public land or a single tree on their own property. They want to know how to save them.”
While the multi-year survey project will allow researchers like Whited and Eichner to track health trends throughout the Flathead Valley, the four students in the forest surveying class also have a narrower focus.
Eichner noticed a decline in the ponderosa pines near campus that started on a neighboring property and has been monitoring it for the last year.
The mountain pine beetle doesn’t disperse very widely, progressing through a forest tree by tree, which gives researchers and forest managers a chance to identity infected trees, remove them and arrest the spread.
Students are working on a full inventory of the eight-acre plot, which means collecting data for roughly 30% of all the trees in the forest. It gives the students, most of whom already work in forestry-adjacent jobs, field experience in their own outdoor classroom.
“It’s really great being able to do super hands-on work without having to travel anywhere,” Swartzenberger said. “The information and processes definitely stick with me a lot more here than they do in a classroom.”
Following the survey of the tree stand, students will write a proposal for how to manage the copse with the goal of minimizing or stopping the spread of the pine beetle that will be presented to the college board.
If the forest isn’t specifically managed to save the ponderosa pines, the entire plot of forest will eventually revert to Douglas firs, a hardier tree that isn’t a target for pine beetles. It’s a process that could play out relatively quickly, as far as trees are concerned.
“We’re in a racing game right now,” Eichner said. “But at the same time, we get to learn by actively working in a forest and and help solidify our understanding of forest management.”
To learn more about the ponderosa pine citizen science project, visit the project website. To log a ponderosa pine sighting, scan the QR code below.
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