Rocky Mountain Research Station - White Pine Blister Rust

White Pine Blister Rust (WPBR)

Limber pine tree on a rocky outcrop in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Limber pine tree on a rocky outcrop in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Rocky Mountain Region is being severely impacted by multiple forest health issues. Though the mountain pine beetle epidemic is waning, climate change continues to cause an escalation of stressful environmental conditions, and other pests and pathogens are gaining momentum. This region is home to three of North America’s high elevation white pines and their unique ecosystems are under threat; whitebark pine, Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine and limber pine are all susceptible to the non-native pathogen, Cronartium ribicola, which causes the lethal disease White Pine Blister Rust (WPBR). WPBR was introduced to North America in the early 1900s and has spread throughout much of the Rocky Mountain Region. The fungus affects trees of all ages and sizes and all North American white pines are susceptible. WPBR infects pine hosts when spores enter through the needle. The fungus grows down the needle and into the bark forming a canker which eventually girdles and kills the tree.

White pine blister rust produces orange, spore-filled blisters on the branches and main stem of the tree that burst allowing the spores to travel hundreds of miles.

White pine blister rust produces orange, spore-filled blisters on the branches and main stem of the tree that burst allowing the spores to travel hundreds of miles.

Though WPBR is an invasive pathogen, genetic disease resistance has been found in all host species including limber pine. Limber pine is an incredibly resilient member of the white pines with a distribution ranging from New Mexico to Alberta, Canada. The needles are a beautiful light green with a slight blue tinge, and only the last few years of needle growth are retained on the branches giving the tree a distinctive profile easily identifiable in the wild. Limber pine is a keystone species functioning to maintain soil stability and ecosystem structure as well as provide habitat and food for wildlife. Living up to 1500 years, they are uniquely adapted to grow on exposed sites where high winds and low temperatures make it unsuitable for other tree species. In northern Colorado, Wyoming, and Southeastern Montana 73% of limber pines stands have been invaded by WPBR, and without intervention, the population of limber pine will continue to decline severely.

A considerable amount of the current research headed by Anna Schoettle at the Rocky Mountain Research Station focuses on limber pine and developing a proactive strategy to ensure early intervention and develop a conservation strategy by identifying and developing planting material with genetic resistance to WPBR and quantifying adaptive variation of populations along the natural range.

Current research projects include common garden studies of range-wide geographic variation in WPBR resistance, growth traits, and their relationships to climate by inoculating hundreds of seedlings and continually monitoring the effects of WBPR on these trees.

Limber pine seedlings in a common garden study are continually monitored for disease resistance and physiological variation after inoculation with white pine blister rust.

Limber pine seedlings in a common garden study are continually monitored for disease resistance and physiological variation after inoculation with white pine blister rust.

An international collaboration is also underway to facilitate our research objectives of assessing adaptive variation. Limber pine seed sources spanning from the southern range limit to the northern range limit were planted in two locations – one in central Alberta and the other in Colorado. These plantings will allow us to assess adaptive traits such as growth, physiology, phenology, and we will be able to compare variation and adaptability throughout the Limber Pine natural range.

These projects advance our understanding of tree disease resistance, growth, and climate interactions. Our hope is to continue to gather information concerning genetic resistance and geographic adaptability to help guide successful management practices throughout the US and Canadian Rocky Mountains, and most especially, prevent future extirpation of these threatened trees by ensuring sustainability and success of both restorative and proactive plantings.

Planting trees in Alberta Canada as an international collaboration to study limber pine genetic by environmental effects.

Planting trees in Alberta Canada as an international collaboration to study limber pine genetic by environmental effects.

Telluride Valley Floor Monitoring

Scott Roberts, MSI's aquatic biologist collects bugs for water quality monitoring. Photo: Esmé Cadiente of

Scott Roberts, MSI's aquatic biologist collects bugs for water quality monitoring. Photo: Esmé Cadiente of

Mountain Studies, in partnership with the Town of Telluride, has developed and implemented protocols for long-term ecological monitoring for the Telluride Valley Floor open space. The Valley Floor a 560-acre property was acquired by the Town of Telluride and is being managed for recreation, wildlife, vegetation (including invasive species), and cultural resources. The Valley Floor is an important ecological resource, recreational amenity, and scenic gateway to the Town of Telluride, containing diverse vegetation communities, wildlife habitat, and cultural and historical resources along a three-mile reach of the San Miguel River. 

In the future the Valley Floor will see active restoration of the San Miguel River to its original course. The open space is an ecologically diverse property ranging from spruce and aspen woodlands, to open dry meadows, to cottonwood forests, to dense riparian (stream side) thickets of willows and herbaceous wetlands. This diversity in vegetation provides critical habitat for numerous animal species; including a resident herd of elk and a handful of resident beaver. Along with its ecological diversity, the Valley Floor has experienced a wide diversity of human impacts, including deposition of mine tailings, the channelization of the San Miguel, railroad construction, and livestock grazing. 

The Town of Telluride is being proactive in its management approach by asking and seeking answers to the flowing question:

What is the current ecological baseline condition of the property; and how might that baseline change over time?

Addressing this question provides the opportunity for MSI to put into practice “science people can use” by informing the community and decision makers of current conditions and capturing change, both favorable and unfavorable, as the property recovers from prior human impacts. Both baseline and long term ecological data can better inform management decisions regarding the restoration and utilization of this ecological and community resource.

To assess the baseline ecological conditions of the Valley Floor over the past two years, MSI has monitored the following:

MSI's Telluride Valley Floor Monitoring responsibilites 

Juncus Arcticus in full bloom in the TVF. Photo: Anayeli Picasso

Juncus Arcticus in full bloom in the TVF. Photo: Anayeli Picasso

Overall Condition – established permanent repeat photography points

Vegetation Composition and Health – established 40+ vegetation monitoring plots; assessed forest composition and health; assessed forb, grass, and shrub community composition and health; assessed of willow health.

Invasive Species – developed protocols for tracking and monitoring; provided instruction to town staff on the use of technology to help in the documentation of invasive populations.

Terrestrial Wildlife – developed and conducted surveys both of population and impacts of elk and prairie dog.

Aquatic Wildlife – conducted surveys of beaver populations; collected benthic macro-invertebrates to assess water quality; developed aquatic Habitat Suitability Indices.    

Recreation – (in progress) placing TRAFx trail counters key points to document the recreational use of the property.

Climate – established a research grade climate station on the Valley Floor; visit MesoWest for live conditions.

Installing a Climate Station in the TVF, Winter 2014. Photo: Aaron Kimple

The natural and physical characteristics of the property are a dynamic system, always changing in response to human interaction and natural forces. Monitoring provides an opportunity to fill data gaps, track long-term trends, evaluate management actions, and identify management problems before resource damage occurs. Ongoing monitoring is a key component of the Town’s adaptive approach to management of the property. 


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Hydrology of the Wolf Creek Pass Area

wolf creek pass

The Wolf Creek Pass area is a unique environment that has been formed by abundant precipitation, high elevation, and steep mountain slopes. These characteristics have formed extensive wetland areas. A private land owner has proposed to build a large development in this area.

The hydrology of the Pass Creek Watershed, located adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area, was investigated to better understand the environmental impacts of future large-scale development of this watershed.

Project Leader: Mark Williams (University of Colorado)

Administered by the Mountain Studies Institute

Preliminary Results

Synoptic surface water samples were collected on public lands and/or access roads towards the end of snowmelt in June 2006, and analyzed for stable water isotopes, tritium and major solutes (Figure 2).  Sample sites included wetlands, springs, and surface waters. High average ANC values of 280 µeq L-1 and average silica of 370 µmoles L-1 suggest water bodies were dominated by groundwater (Table 2). A range of tritium values from 6-8 TU suggest a residence time of 1-5 years (Table 1).  δ18O values of around -14‰ suggest recharge primarily by snowmelt. 

These results suggest that the source of water for wetlands and springs in the area of the Alberta basin is groundwater rather than new snowmelt runoff. Recharge appears to be snowmelt upgradient of the wetlands complex. Residence time appears to be on the order of 1-5 years. Construction of impervious areas of about 50% in the development area, along with removal of snow for road access and other activities, will likely result in a severe reduction in infiltration. The decrease in infiltration may result in a reduction in groundwater recharge that feeds the wetlands complex.

Therefore there is reason to believe that development up-gradient of the wetlands could have down-gradient impacts by affecting the hydrologic and ecological processes supporting these wetlands.  Development may:

  • Reduce infiltration through the addition of impervious surfaces: (a) roads, (b) driveways, (c) buildings
  • Disrupt ground water flow paths that support the wetlands through (a) construction of basements, (b) burying utilities to depths of 10’ or greater, (c) road cuts
  • Drainage systems installed to divert water away from roads and buildings

San Juan Fen Partnership


The San Juan Fen Partnership is a collaborative citizen group whose goal is to identify, study, and protect the unique and ancient wetland ecosystems that are present in the San Juan Mountains—our local fens. Fens are wetlands that are rich in organic peat soil. They store carbon, filter pollutants from water, and are important for supporting biodiversity, including rare species.

Who is the San Juan Fen Partnership?

Comprised of the Town of Mountain Village, the Town of Telluride, San Miguel County, Telluride Ski & Golf Resort, Sheep Mountain Alliance, Colorado State University, Mountain Studies Institute and the local community at-large, the Partnership is working closely with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which manage much of the high country in the San Juan Mountains, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been providing grants to identify and study the fens.

San Juan Partnership Representatives:

  • Dr. David Cooper - Colorado State University
  • Bob Delves - San Miguel Watershed Coalition
  • Mary Duffy - Telluride Community At-Large
  • Rube Felicelli - Town of Mountain Village
  • Karen Gugliemone - Town of Telluride
  • Joan May - San Miguel County
  • Linda Miller - Sheep Mountain Alliance
  • Dr. Koren Nydick - Mountain Studies Institute
  • Warren Young - Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forest
  • Elizabeth Howe and/or Amy Laubenstein - Telluride Ski & Golf Resort

The Prospect Basin fen studies at the Telluride Ski Resort are the only studies of their type being performed in the United States. The Prospect Basin fens, like many fens in the San Juans, represent unique ecological niches. In Prospect Basin, the age of the fens stretch back in time approximately 10,000 years. Many of the wetland plants that grow in fens are clonal (descended from and genetically identical to a single common ancestor), and provide a valuable source of baseline information for the further study of other plants, climate, insects, carbon sequestration and other characteristics of mountain environments over time.

Fens in the high country surrounding Telluride and Mountain Village became a point of contention in 2001 when the Telluride Ski Resort proposed expanding their operations into Prospect Basin. While it was agreed that the additional terrain was important to sustain economic viability in the region by enabling Telluride to compete with larger resorts for the Colorado skier market, there were many environmental concerns, particularly with ensuring protection of the fens that exist in the proposed expansion area. San Miguel County negotiated directly with the ski area owners to achieve a greater degree of financial assistance and ecological monitoring for the Prospect Basin fens than the U.S. Forest Service required as part of the ski area expansion permit. Working with its neighbor governments, the County helped set up a collaborative community oversight group to help with the fen work paid for by the ski area during the three years of pre- and post-construction of the expansion.

Working together helped to ensure the success of the Prospect Bowl expansion and to gain national recognition for the collaborative conservation project, in particular for its protection of the fens, its use of innovative trail construction techniques to minimize adverse environmental impacts and its efforts to preserve the natural feeling of the mountain. It also raised local awareness about the fragility and importance of fens and how little we know about them. So, upon completion of the ski area construction, local partners in the fens effort decided to continue the group’s mission to pursue funding for scientific research on the fens and to expand its area of geographic interest from the Prospect Basin fens to the fens of the entire San Juan Mountain region.

Today, the San Juans Fen Partnership oversees further scientific research, monitoring and analyses of the fens in the San Juans region, as well as continues to provide education about fens and their importance to local forest and alpine ecology. The Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton, Colorado serves as fiscal sponsor and provides research, outreach, and development support for the Partnership. Dr. David Cooper, (Colorado State University), Dr. Rod Chimner (Michigan Technological University), and Dr. Koren Nydick (Mountain Studies Institute) lead fen projects throughout the San Juan Mountains. These projects incorporate research, monitoring, restoration, and educational training. The San Juan Public Lands Center (USFS/BLM) and the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest have participated in these training events and now operate fen inventories for public lands management.

Fen Restoration


Mountain Wetland Monitoring, Assessment, and Conservation

MSI's MOUNTAIN WETLAND PROGRAM has several components aimed at improving the understanding of wetland hydro-ecology, ecological health, spatial distribution, and impacts of human activities, and communicating this information to land managers and the public. Of these, the fen project is an integral piece of mountain wetland monitoring.


Fens in the San Juan Mountains have accumulated up to three meters of peat and most are thousands of years old. These wetlands store carbon, filter pollutants from water, and support biodiversity, including rare species. Fens are abundant in the San Juans because the combination of snowmelt and late summer monsoon rains provide ample moisture.

Fens face threats from the development of mountain watersheds and from climate change. Both can alter the amount of water that reaches the fen and can cause the wetland to dry out.

The Fen Project is a result of the San Juan Fen Partnership.


ophir pass fen project

The goal of the Ophir Pass Fen Restoration Project, now moving into it’s sixth year, is to restore the hydrologic and ecological function of the fen from historical mining and other disturbances. Specifically, the project aims to: (1) restore hydrological and ecological function of the fen, (2) reduce metal loading from sediment eroding into Mineral Creek, and (3) advance the state of practice for fen/wetland restoration in mountain environments. The collaboration combined efforts of MSI, Michigan Technological University, Durango Mountain Land, National Forest Foundation, San Juan National Forest, Colorado Mountain Club, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and many volunteer partners.  

After inspecting past mitigation work, the erosion controls, ditch dams, and transplanted vegetation all appear to be effective. In summer of 2018, we planted four species: Carex microptera, C. utriculata, C. norvegica, C. aquatilis, and Calamagrostis canadensis across Ophir Fen. In total, our volunteers put 1,379 greenhouse cultivated seedling plugs in the ground. These plugs were grown in a greenhouse over the winter from seed collected at Ophir Pass in 2017 (AlpineEco Nursery, Salida, CO). 

We engaged various groups of youth and the public to complete the revegetation work:  

  • Interns with MSI’s Four Corners Federal Lands Internship Program (FC-FLIP) 

  • Volunteers from San Juan Mountain Sisters on Leadership Expeditions (SOLES), whose mission is to “inspire young women to lead healthy, fulfilling lives rooted in big mountains, confident leadership and authentic community engagement”

  • Colorado College incoming freshmen   

In addition to helping with planting plugs of these native sedges, volunteers also helped with installing erosion controls, while learning firsthand about wetland restoration and ecology. 

chattanooga fen project

Titled the “Durango Mountain Land Wetland Mitigation and Monitoring Plan at the Chattanooga Fen and Ophir Pass Fen,” the principal goal is to ensure a “no net loss” of wetland functions within the Animas Watershed. This is achieved via the restoration of natural hydrology in order to support fen vegetation, cease erosion, stabilize peat soils, and revegetate non-vegetated areas. This plan, approved by the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers in 2012 included two phases: Phase I (1.30 acres) success criteria was met 100% in 2014; Phase II (0.97 acres) construction occurred on June 22-26, 2013. In total, 563 linear feet of ditches were restored.

Mitigation work for 2018 included the inspection of Phase I and Phase II construction, revegetation efforts, existing ditches, and existing bare areas. MSI engaged various groups of youth and the public to plant 913 nursery-grown and 200 transplanted plugs of Carex utriculata and C. aquatilis at Chattanooga Fen in 2018These groups included: 

  • Fort Lewis College incoming freshmen “EcoRoadshow” participants

  • Outward Bound participants

  • Colorado Native Plant Society, Southwest chapter members

  • Multiple events open to the general public, including one to celebrate National Public Lands Day 

  • Durango Daybreak Rotary Members

In addition to helping with planting plugs of these native sedges, volunteers also helped with installing erosion controls, while learning firsthand about wetland restoration and ecology. MSI and SJNF staff planted approximately 300 willow poles on October 21, 2018 to augment vegetative cover.  

Hydrologic monitoring also took place as part of the fen restoration efforts, which included regular groundwater well measurements and precipitation data acquired from SNOTEL site 713 on Red Mountain Pass. Vegetation was inspected where mitigation activities have occurred during Phase I and Phase II. The vegetation plots are monitored annually to determine the plant community composition and canopy cover. As hydrology changes post-restoration, species composition may change in plots below the ditches as the water table stabilizes over the next 5-10 years.

Peggy Lyon Western Colorado Flora Collection

geranium kingsii

Peggy Lyon Western Colorado Flora Collection

Peggy Lyon has collected and surveyed plants for decades in Western Colorado. Over the years of working for the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, she has become a "guru" of plant flora. Peggy has led wildflower walks as part of MSI's Mountain Learning Program. She was integral to MSI's baseline alpine survey conducted in 2006 that began a long-term study (as part of the international GLORIA program).

Upon her impending retirement, Peggy decided to donate her flora collection to MSI for display at Fort Lewis College. Thanks Peggy!

The San Juan Public Lands Center (USFS/BLM) provided funds for labor and materials needed to prepare the collection for use.

What is in the Collection?

elephant head

The specimens in this collection include vascular plants from the western slope of Colorado, from desert to alpine tundra.  They were collected during various projects on the western slope, from a master’s thesis in 1993/4 in the San Miguel and Lower Dolores drainages, to various Colorado Natural Heritage Program county-wide projects and rare plant surveys on National Forest and BLM lands, through 2008. 

Counties represented include: Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata, Archuleta, Hinsdale, San Miguel, San Juan, Montrose, Ouray, Delta, Mesa, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Pitkin, Summit, Eagle and Rio Grande.

Major families represented are Asteraceae (166 species); Poaceae (104); Fabaceae (77); Cyperaceae (71); and Brassicaceae (67). 

Seventy-two are species tracked by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program.

How can you access the Collection?

The Peggy Lyon Collection is housed at the herbarium at Fort Lewis College. The Fort Lewis College herbarium is an internationally registered collection (code FLD) with current holdings of approximately 15,000 specimens of vascular plants and fungi, principally from southwest Colorado and the San Juan Mountains.  The herbarium is housed within  and managed by the department of Biology and access is granted to the public via prior arrangements with the curator, Dr. Ross A McCauley. Contact Dr. McCauley by email or phone, 970-247-7338. 

indian paint brush

Currently the herbarium is housed in a portion of the botany laboratory and thus access is restricted to those times when the room is not needed for instruction.  At the end of 2009 the Biology department will be moving to a new facility which is currently under construction.  With this move the herbarium will have a larger and dedicated space with new compactor-style cabinets, work space with microscopes for examining specimens, a small library of botanical literature, principally taxonomic keys for the Rocky Mountains and Intermountain West, and a dedicated computer with internet access to botanical databases and resources.  In order to increase the public accessibility and usefulness of the collection a project is currently underway to start the data basing of the collection with one of the goals being the distribution of herbarium records via a publically accessible internet database.