Meditation on pine beetles

Pine beetle

Close-up of a Mountain Pine Beetle. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 31, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Meditation on pine beetles: Is there life after tree death?”

2015 Update: We are getting used to the idea that we need to bring our own shade when camping in National Forest campgrounds that have been cleared of hazardous, beetle-kill trees. For more information, see http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05528.html and http://www.fs.usda.gov/barkbeetle. See another column about pine beetles that was posted about a week ago, that was published in 2006.

By Barb Gorges

For anyone who doesn’t regularly recreate in or travel through the forests of south central Wyoming and north central Colorado, the photos of pine beetle damage shown at January’s Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society meeting might have been a shock. Especially the photos of grown trees blown down like straws and campgrounds denuded by the removal of hazardous trees.

Many of the 75 people in the audience, however, judging by their questions and comments, have mountain property and are in the midst of the battle field.

The largest mountain landowner, the U.S. Forest Service, was represented by the evening’s speaker, Steve Carrey, director of renewable resources for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. One irate audience member demanded to know why the Forest Service hadn’t headed this epidemic off when it started.

Pine beetle-infested forest

This photo was taken in 2008 at the YMCA near Winter Park, Colorado, shortly after dead pine trees were removed in an area that had been heavily forested. There are many more dead trees on the mountain sides. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The simple explanation is that pine beetles are always with us but were at a high point in their cycle when drought was weakening trees of an age beetles prefer and warm winters didn’t freeze any beetles dead following the initial outbreak in 1996 west of Denver. It created, as Steve said, a perfect storm. Lack of funding hasn’t helped either.

Even with limitless funds, one cannot spray every pine tree in the forest or change the climate quickly.

One can only clean up the mess, clearing dead trees before they fall across roads, trails, power lines and campgrounds and before they begin to burn.

No one seems to want the dead trees—the price of timber is still too low to reopen more than one of the local sawmills. Some are being turned into pellets for pellet stoves and there is talk of building a plant that uses wood to generate electricity.

Lodgepole pine is the main tree being killed. The stands we are used to seeing on the Medicine Bow are 80 to 150 years old, the regrowth after initial logging. Most of us in the audience will not be around to see this second regrowth reach maturity.

In fact, many people looked old enough to have been recreating on the forest over 50 years (30 for me) and may not be around in 10-15 years when the trees are finished falling over and are no longer hazardous except as fuel in wildfires. Even then, a stroll off the trail will entail climbing over the deadfall.

Downed trees may, happily, slow illegal off-road driving.

Pine beetle evidence

A lodgepole pine in the Medicine Bow National Forest tried to push pine beetles out with wellings of sap at multiple locations. Photo by Barb Gorges.

It tears at my heart to see ponderosa pines turning red between Cheyenne and Laramie, along my favorite Pole Mountain trails, knowing that soon it will be unsafe to roam there, for awhile. But I don’t feel the same about the mountain sides of lodgepole monoculture over west of Laramie and have never yearned for a cabin in that dense forest.

Having, on quests for elk, tramped through the endless monotony of tree trunks as far as the eye can see, with no underbrush, no bird song, only squirrel chatter and the occasional break for a birdy, spruce-lined creek and beaver pond, or rocky outcropping with a view of soaring hawks, I’m ready for a change.

Having driven endless miles of roads lined with future telephone poles right down to the shoulder, wondering when a deer will spring out to meet my bumper, I’ll appreciate the change.

A connoisseur of cloud formations and sunsets, I look forward to vistas opening up. Let’s just hope that all the mountain cabins and structures that come into view are picturesque.

There may be a lack of shade, but the forecast is that the sunny slopes will produce lots of grass and shrubs, even aspen, before the pines shade them out again, not unlike a clearcut or burn.

Just exactly which wildlife species will disappear and which will appreciate the change is ripe for research by a generation or two of grad students.

Doesn’t this remind you of the 1988 Yellowstone fires?

The difference is that the Medicine Bow isn’t quite done with the epidemic. For a few more years each year’s generation of beetles will fly to new trees mid-summer, where they’ll burrow under the bark and lay eggs that hatch into larva that eat the trees’ cambium layer, girdling and killing the trees over the winter, with the red needles showing the following summer as the next generation of adults flies off.

Pine beetle damage

Closeup of a spot where the pine beetle chewed into a pine and the tree responded with a clot of sap. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The year the new beetles can’t find any live trees to bore into and lay eggs will be the year their population plummets.

If you want to see how our forest will soon look, visit central Colorado. Visit the web site www.fs.fed.us/r2/bark-beetle .

Losing the forest we know and love is like losing our old dog, the one whose body language we know so well he doesn’t even have to ask to be let outside. The new forest will be as dynamic as a puppy, full of surprises and excitement, anxious to grow.

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