Brewer Spruce: A Climate Sensitive Wonder

KS Wild Conservation Director, George Sexton, was recently fortunate enough to obtain a Forest Service permit to enter the Klondike fire closure area in order to visit several botanical hotspots and ascertain the impacts of the fire and fire-suppression activities on species and areas of concern. The drive up the 4201 road from the Illinois River to the Babyfoot Lake trailhead has been designated by the Forest Service as the “TJ Howell Botanical Drive.” Due to the renowned and unique botanical values along the route, it has long been popular with botanists and sightseers. Many of the rare and endemic species found along the Botanical Drive have evolved over millennia to thrive on serpentine soils that are rich in heavy metals and low in nitrogen. One such species is the mystical Brewer Spruce, found only in the Klamath-Siskiyou region. Read along with Summer 2016 KS Wild Fellow, Shannon Browne, to learn about the unique habitat diversity afforded by these rare endemic species.

By Shannon Browne, KS Wild Fellow Summer 2016

Brewer Spruce in the Trinity Alps Wilderness   Photo credit :  Tom Hilton

Brewer Spruce in the Trinity Alps Wilderness

Photo credit: Tom Hilton

It doesn’t take much to be enamored by the dramatic terrain and botanical diversity of the Klamath mountains. It compels those who seek large areas of remote, rugged lands. The unique geology of the Klamath mountains result in steep canyons and ridges interspersed with mixed conifer forests, sagebrush slopes, wet meadows, and riparian OR habitats. CA

Among the many unusual endemic species found nowhere else in the world, there is a tree, carving out its existence on high ridgelines within these remote mountains. I was surprised the first time I laid eyes on the Brewer spruce, having never seen anything like it on my mountain walks. With its long weeping branching, it’s quite a forest character and hard to miss. Not only does it stand out in a sea of Douglas fir, true firs, and pines, but its physical structure hints at origins from long ago. Brewer spruce remains one of the rarest among American spruce species.

This little known tree is threatened by climate change. With new constraints like increased temperature and reduced snowpack predicted throughout the region, it’s unknown how Brewer spruce will fare in the future.

I am investigating the impact of climate change on Brewer spruce seedling dispersal for my Masters Thesis at Southern Oregon University. Working with KS Wild as the Katherine MacDiarmid Fellow this summer my thesis work has integrated well with the Adopt-a-Botanical Area Program.

Monitoring federally designated botanical areas with known Brewer spruce populations is real “boots on the ground” science. So far, my findings have been that healthy Brewer spruce stands are most related to intervals of forest disturbance, particularly from fire. As we can also predict longer, and hotter forest fire seasons to come, it’s disturbing that Brewer spruce                                   populations will likely be heavily affected.

I feel fortunate to experience these incredible places and to parallel this exploration with ongoing work at KS Wild. I look forward to sharing my final results, and to contribute science that can help inform land managers and the public about the fate of sensitive species in the face of a changing climate.