OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

CoF Research in the News

Seabird research creates opportunities for ecosystem understanding

The Institute for Working Forest Landscapes in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University has funded a little more than one million dollars annually for a new study aimed at conserving marbled murrelet populations in Oregon, said James Rivers, a professor of animal ecology in the College of Forestry and lead researcher on the project.

Streamflow deficits persist in young Douglas-fir forests

For a master’s degree in geography, Timothy D. Perry analyzed data at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest east of Eugene and in the Coyote Creek watershed in the South Umpqua Experimental Forest. In a report published in the journal Ecohydrology, he and Julia Jones, OSU professor of geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, noted that reduced flows in mountain watersheds could affect larger rivers.

Wild bees thrive after severe forest fires

“In low severity spots, if you weren’t looking for the markers of fire, you wouldn’t know that it had burned,” said Sara M. Galbraith, a post-doctoral researcher in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. “The canopy is completely closed, and the trees are usually older. There isn’t a lot of evidence of fire except for some blackened areas on some of the tree trunks."

Innovation in treating Swiss Needle Cast

The Swiss Needle Cast Cooperative was established in 1997 as a partnership between the Oregon State University College of Forestry and private, state and federal organizations to address challenges to the management of Douglas fir in Oregon and Washington caused by the Swiss needle cast epidemic.

The mission of the research cooperative is to conduct research to enhance productivity of Douglas fir and general forest health.

Swiss needle cast disease is caused by a fungal pathogen. Symptoms include yellow needles and premature needle abscission, resulting in sparse crowns as well as reduced diameter and height growth of the severely infected trees. Because no “silver bullet” cure for the disease has been found or currently appears within reach, research funding has gradually declined.

Doug Maguire, the Giustina Professor of Forest Management, says that continuing to research various aspects of the disease remains important for effective management in the presence of the disease. If managers know their Douglas fir stands are afflicted with Swiss needle cast, they can vary stand density and plant other species to minimize or offset the loss of production.

Back in the ’90s, the first step to learning about and managing the disease was to conduct a growth impact study. Senior Faculty Research Assistant Doug Mainwaring says a new plot network will expand on that research in a strategic way.

“It covers 100 or so stands along the entire length of the Coast Ranges,” he says. “We wanted to sample foliage from the trees to get a feel for their initial condition.”

The cooperative will continue to take measurements every five years in order to get a sense of what the growth losses are.

“It will also help us know if the disease is getting better or worse,” Mainwaring says.

The results of the study will have an impact on the decisions made by forest managers like Mark Gourley of Starker Forests. Unlike journal articles that incorporate only the findings from one small team of researchers, he’s glad the Swiss Needle Cast Cooperative brings a collaborative group of professionals and researchers to the table to discuss the problem the disease causes.

“I feel valued when we come to the table together with other foresters and researchers from various areas from inside and outside the OSU College of Forestry. It’s a unique approach, and it works,” Gourley says.

So far, the cooperative is finding that there is a climatic influence on the disease.

“If we have a wet spring and mild winter, that’s conducive to the fungus that causes Swiss needle cast,” Mainwaring says. “Depending on changes to our climate, people will take action one way or another. One of the smartest things to do is to plant other species in case the Doug fir fails, and I think that’s really important to continue.”

Results from aerial analyses in 2015 indicate a slight expansion, 0.6 percent, in the affected area relative to 2014, but it remains the most significant threat to Douglas fir plantations in western Oregon.

“Sustained growth losses over the previous 20 years have resulted in millions of dollars in lost timber and tax revenues,” said Gabriela Ritokova, Assistant Director of the Swiss Needle Cooperative. “In many cases, mid-rotation stands in the hardest hit areas have remained in an unproductive state, with managers hoping for a reprieve in disease levels.”

Marbled Murrelet becomes a flagship species for environmental change

Oregon State professor Jim Rivers calls the marbled murrelet — a small seabird native to the North Pacific — a flagship species for healthy ecosystems because it is one of the only birds in the world that gets all of its food from the marine environment but nests well inland in forested areas, sometimes as far as 50 miles from the nearest ocean.

Murrelets are listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in Oregon, Washington and California, yet little is known about the nesting habits of this curious, short-beaked seabird in Oregon.

Rivers and a team of scientists from the Oregon State College of Forestry including Matt Betts, Kim Nelson, and Dan Roby, as well as the Oregon State Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Survey, want to learn more about the habitat of choice for nesting, as well as the factors that contribute to successful raising their young.

A better understanding of murrelet nesting habitat is critical for informing tough policy decisions on conservation and active management of coastal forests. Therefore, with funding from the Oregon State Forest Research Lab, the team has begun an important study of this species.

Nesting near the coast makes murrelets unique from their relatives like puffins or guillemots, species that often nest on rock outcroppings along the coast. It also makes them exceptionally challenging to study, and researchers go to great lengths to locate nests.

“We start by capturing the bird at sea during the night when they can be netted from a small boat close to shore,” Rivers says. “We then attach tracking tags, release the birds and use fixed-wing aircraft to traverse coastal forests to find the tracking tags. If all goes well, we narrow the bird’s location to a stand where can locate the nest.

Rivers admits this is a lot of work.

“But it’s the only way we can get a sample of reasonable size that allows us to best understand the breeding habitat that this species needs,” he says.

The goal of studying marbled murrelets is to provide information for management policies and practices in forests where the birds nest.

“In particular, we want to know where they nest on the landscape, what influences their ability to nest successfully, and ultimately how timber harvest near nest stands may influence their ability to breed successfully,” Nelson began studying the birds in the 1980s, and her existing research is an integral part of the project.

“We found the first nest of this species in Oregon in 1990,” she says. “Since then my work has focused on finding nest sites, studying breeding ecology, using modeling to describe optimal habitat, assessing the impacts of fragmentation and predation, mapping forgaging hot spots and more.”

Nelson calls murrelets cryptic and secretive. “They’ve foiled biologists for centuries,” she says.

Now the team is adopting a new approach to finding murrelet nests by building upon knowledge and techniques gained from other murrelet research and adapting it to conditions specific to Oregon.

To help find the birds’ cryptic nests, the research team is also working with researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a private NGO, Oceans Unmanned, to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with thermal infrared cameras in coastal forests to help locate active nests.

“Using UAVs to conduct this kind of research is cutting edge,” Rivers says. “No one has used them to locate cryptic nests within complex terrestrial habitats, in part because of logistical challenges and because of extensive regulations. Nevertheless, we really need to find murrelets nests and monitor them to better understand their breeding habits, and UAVs offer us a promising opportunity in this regard.”

After a successful pilot season in 2016, the research is ongoing and ever expanding.

“The ocean conditions are expected to provide good foraging opportunities for birds during future breeding seasons,” Rivers says. “Our goal is to capture and tag a large sample of the murrelets on the ocean with tracking tags, and continue that approach to obtain data in multiple years. This project requires us to capture a large number of birds because an unknown proportion of adults forgo breeding, so some tagged birds may not nest within the timeframe that the tracking tags are functional.”

If the project goes well and enough data are collected, the research team will be able to make recommendations to land managers about how murrelet habitat should be managed to sustain murrelet populations.

“This study should be able to say something about their habitat needs and requirements in Oregon in particular,” Rivers says. “Ultimately, we want to learn how forest management practices may influence this threatened species so we can provide information for adaptive management to reach both economic and ecological goals.”

Exploring the use of herbicide in forest management

How much should be used? Does it help production or hurt it? Is it good for the economy or not? And with global demand for wood resources expected to increase by up to 40% in the next 15 years, answers are needed.

Matt Betts, an associate professor of forest, wildlife and landscape ecology at the Oregon State University College of Forestry, is working to provide those answers through a project funded by landowners, the USDA, the National Council for Air and Stream improvement and the Institute for Working Forest Landscapes (IWFL).

The IWFL was launched in 2013 by the OSU College of Forestry to focus research programs on innovative approaches for managing landscapes that will enhance people’s lives and improve the health of our lands, businesses and vital ecosystems. The IWFL develops adaptive forest management techniques that integrate social, ecological and economic objectives at the landscape level.

Betts says the money contributed by the IWFL allows the team to spend about a year putting together the results of the research.

“Without this funding, we wouldn’t have been able to continue for so long and put the data together to get results,” Betts says. “Herbicide use and early seral forests are two of the most important topics in forest management right now, and we’re hopeful our results will help inform those controversies.”

He says this research looks into what levels of intensive forest management are best to optimize timber production and other ecosystem services such as wildlife conservation, pollinators and other aspects of biodiversity.

“By collecting data on all these different attributes in young forests, we can look at the relationship between timber production and different services of the forest,” Betts says.

While this particular study began in 2015, Betts already had six years of data on tree growth through a well-designed experiment. He says that by 2018, the team will be able to model future tree growth and will have extensive data on other services as well.

The Betts’ study, entitled “Quantifying Trade-offs and Synergies Between Ecosystem Services in Intensively Managed Forests,” is the first of its kind to apply a true experimental approach to addressing pressing research questions in young, managed forests. The project also is unique in its ambitious sample size (32 full-size forest stands distributed across Oregon’s northern Coast Range).

PhD student Thomas Stokely has been assisting the project for six years. He focuses on food-web dynamics.

“We want to know how herbicides influence tree growth and other factors,” Stokely says.

Stokely and Betts hypothesize that while deer and elk don’t eat much Douglas Fir, they do enjoy munching on plants, weeds and other growth that herbicides kill. When managers use herbicides, sometimes deer and elk resort to munching on young Douglas firs. However, if managers cut back on herbicide use, the animals might have more to eat besides the small limbs of highly-valued trees.

“So far, we have evidence of an ecosystem service where the hardwoods are retained when you spray less herbicide,” Stokely says.

With support from the state, forest industry, and conservation groups, OSU researchers gather data on threatened seabird

The project is possible because of an increase in funding for research in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University provided by the state Legislature in 2015 with broad support from the timber industry and conservation groups. “We are investing in this project because all interests want to know the breeding habitat requirements of the marbled murrelet, so that land management decisions in our productive coastal forests benefit from the best data and science available,” said Thomas Maness, dean of the college.

Conserve intact forest landscapes to maximize biodiversity, reduce extinction risk

“We have seen declines in species in landscapes that have already lost a massive amount of habitat,” said Matthew Betts, lead author and professor in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. “But we found much more support for what we call the initial intrusion hypothesis. It’s the initial hit caused by roads going into tropical forests and the human activities that follow that is most substantial. These are also the spots with the greatest sheer numbers of species.”

Marbled Murrelet study along the Oregon coast

The study, led by Oregon State University assistant professor and senior researcher Jim Rivers, is the first to tag marbled murrelets on the open ocean.

Large carnivores have lost more than 90 percent of their range

Chris Wolf and William Ripple at Oregon State University looked at historical accounts of large carnivores and maps of their preferred habitat around AD 1500, and found that they are now present in just a third of the land area they occupied back then. Of the 25 species analysed, all weighing more than 15 kilograms, 15 had lost more than half their range.

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