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Pine Beetles: Worse Than You Thought

Two pieces of grim news this week indicate that the beetle infestation plaguing the pine forests of the Western Slope is likely to get far worse in the next couple of years.

First, reports from the Front Range indicate that the mountain pine beetle has, as expected, successfully crossed the Continental Divide and is now boring through trees in Fort Collins, Boulder, Greeley, Loveland, Berthoud and Windsor. Defying the notion that the beetles would only successfully propagate in dense lodgepole pines, the insects are colonizing Scotch pines and ponderosa pines.

“Mike Antolin, who lives in north Fort Collins, was shocked to see his stand of 70-year-old ponderosa pines … pocked with thousands of pitch tubes” — attacked trees’ defense mechanism — in early Sept., reports The Coloradoan’s Miles Blumhardt.

Then, the Boulder-based National Center for Atmospheric Research released preliminary findings from a study indicating that by wiping out huge tracts of forest, the beetles can alter local weather patterns – essentially inducing insect-caused drought conditions.

Forests cool and humidify the air, says Alex Guenther, the lead NCAR scientist on the four-year probe into the state of the forests under beetle assault. “In addition trees emit gases that form particles, particles starting points for cloud droplets,” Guenther adds.

“The expectation would be warmer and drier” conditions in the affected forest in the coming years. That sets off a vicious feedback loop: Warmer drier forests make better beetle sanctuaries, and more beetles kill off more trees.

Taken together, these developments seem to confirm the worst predictions about the beetle’s advance, which has been underway since the late 1990s. Every pine tree to the edge of the Great Plains could be gone in the next five years, though the devastation could be less severe east of the Divide.

Beetles claimed 500,000 new acres of trees in 2007, according to the annual aerial survey of Colorado’s forests, making the total kill 1.5 million acres.

Foresters are puzzled about how the beetle spread so quickly into Fort Collins, effectively hopping over the Poudre Canyon. Mountain pine beetles have a flight range of about a mile. One theory is that infested firewood imported from the Western Slope has brought beetle larva into the city. High late-summer winds could also have aided the migration.

“We’re all scratching our heads about the source,” beetle expert Dave Leatherman, a retired Colorado State Forest Service entomologist, told the Coloradoan.

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7 comments

  1. I can’t recall seeing a pine tree I didn’t like, and it’s hard to imagine Idaho without its native P.ponderosa, P.flexilis, P.albacaulis, P.monticola, and P.contorta (or whatever they call ’em now, I took Systematic Botany at the UofI more than 30 years ago now; and Scotch pine, whatever that is, wasn’t on our list).

    But we do have other genera of trees. Do pine beetles only go after Pinus, as their name suggests? Would hemlocks, firs, Doug firs, cedar and larch be able to cover more territory?

  2. NCAR’s conclusions are not a shock. When you have half a province dead, without the usual transpiration, of course you are not only going to get different water yields on the ground, but in the air, too.
    Big shock. But I’m sure glad the scientists finally figured out what us lay riffraff have been thinking about.
    Now, if IKEA would just start pumping bluestain Swedish minimalism as the new style so we could go get some wood, sell it and buy some replacement seedlings………..

  3. The words “selective logging” sound oh so good right now…

  4. The words “selective logging” sound oh so good right now…Or clearcuts..?

  5. It looks like the stand shown is beyond selective logging. Better to log now than to wait until it all burns. At least you can control the size of the cut and it will get replanted. Let it burn usually means let it come back naturally.

  6. Tom,

    The beetle in question here (mountain pine beetle), does in fact only attack the Pinus genus. It is well-documented that it attacks lodgepole pine, white pine, whitebark pine, limber pine and (contrary to the statement “… defying the notion… the insects are colonizing… ponderosa pines.”), ponderosa pine. The other trees you mention are immune to these beetles, although many have their own species of bark beetles.

  7. I am very concerned about Global Warming and right now after reading about the beetles and the devistation they are causing. I can only hope that our scientists are working on controling or eliminating them a/s/a/p!! It is snowballing so fast and I think it should be addressed as we speak.