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Assisted gene flow in the context of large-scale forest management in California, USA

  • Author(s): Young, DJN
  • Blush, TD
  • Landram, M
  • Wright, JW
  • Latimer, AM
  • Safford, HD
  • et al.

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As climate changes, locally adapted tree populations may become maladapted to the sites in which they presently occur. When natural adaptive processes are insufficient for populations to keep pace with changing climate, human-assisted relocation of genotypes (assisted gene flow) may be a useful tool for maintaining forest resilience. While existing empirical evidence provides insight into the potential outcomes and consequences of assisted gene flow, its applicability to large-scale plantings needs to be evaluated. We conducted a test of assisted gene flow in the context of operational postfire restoration plantings in three U.S. Department of Agriculture National Forests in California. Our experimental restoration plantings included seedling provenances representing both the local planting site and lower-elevation provenances that may be adapted to hotter and drier conditions. For the duration of the experiment, the planting sites experienced anomalously hot, dry conditions, offering a window into the potential outcomes of assisted gene flow in a future climate characterized by warmer temperatures and more frequent drought. In most cases, there was no significant difference in seedling growth or survival among provenances. However, in a few cases, lower-elevation provenances performed better than local provenances, suggesting a potential benefit of assisted gene flow as a management response to climate change. Our analyses accounted for spatial variation in shrub cover and detected a consistent and substantial negative association between shrub cover and seedling growth. In addition, our study revealed that the use of operational seed collections that are not geographically precise (and therefore also not climatically precise) can complicate selection of appropriate provenances and lead to unpredictable outcomes. Numerous other risks and uncertainties—including the fact that tree populations are often adapted to local site factors other than climate and that long-term outcomes may differ from short-term observations—complicate evaluations of the potential utility of assisted gene flow.

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