INTRO: Throughout the west a natural process is being witnessed that in some areas has had devastating impacts. The Bark Beetle epidemic has affected millions of acres of forest and caused public officials to ponder what if anything can be done about it. Big Horn Radio Network’s David Koch reports that officials recently looked at the situation in northwest, Wyoming.
DAVID KOCH: Officials with US forest service from across the west gathered for two days in Cody to study the effects of the Bark Beetle Epidemic on the Shoshone National Forest. Over the past ten years there has been widespread Bark Beetle Epidemics occurring in forests across Wyoming and the West. To better understand the epidemic you must first understand the beetles causing the damage.
KURT ALLEN: There’s actually a three separate ones, there’s the mountain pine beetle which is attacking the pine trees, Douglas fir beetle killing the Douglas fir trees and the spruce beetle which is killing the spruce trees.
KOCH: That’s US Forest service entomologist Kurt Allen. When you see a beetle killed tree one notices a pattern etched into the bark, Allen explains what causes those etchings and how it kills the host tree.
ALLEN: You look at it and the adult beetles bore through the bark and get underneath the bark of the tree and they lay their eggs in there and the immature beetles are called the larvae, they hatch under there and they actually feed under the bark of the tree on the part of the tree called the flome. If you look at a tree the flome is basically a column of sugar, and it’s the organ if you will that carries the food that the needles make down to the roots basically to keep the tree alive, so as the larvae are feeding on the flome they basically cut off the food of the tree.
KOCH: To witness those affects first hand Allen, scientists and other forest service officials take a field trip into the forest 4 miles east of Yellowstone into the Shoshone Forest led by Fire Management Officer Clint Dawson.
Dawson: We are at what we call eagle creek cabin group there’s a number of cabins here and going east, there’s a number of reasons why we started here, one is of course the effects of the Doug fir beetle with all of the dead trees that you see, not necessarily around the cabin but away from the cabins up on the hillsides there most of this is all Doug Fir and the effects of what the Doug Fir Beetle did to this area.
KOCH: Looking across the area, outnumbering the golden stands of turning aspens the hillside has massive stands of gray dead trees and deep red dying trees, all from the Bark Beetle. The large numbers of dead trees has turned mountainsides into matchsticks causing fire officials to change their fire management tactics. Mark Giocaletto is the Fire Staff officer for the Shoshone National Forest.
MARK GIOCALETTO: It’s increased the amount of dead trees and materials in the forest, which directly affects fire behavior, in many cases we just can’t directly attack a fire like we could before in a green stand.
KOCH: According to ecologist with the forest service years of controversial fire suppression tactics coupled with a continuing drought perpetuate the epidemic causing up to a 50% mortality rate in the affected forests. Allen says it’s like a cheap buffet for the beetles
ALLEN: In all cases you know the pine the Doug Fir all those species we had a lot of that kind of forest out there, really big trees really dense stands and so that really creates excellent habitat if you happen to be a bark beetle I mean it’s really, for lack of a better way to put it, it’s like a two dollar buffet for bark beetles
KOCH: However, there is still debate over whether anything should be done with bark beetle killed trees. University of Wyoming Associate Professor Dr. Dan Tinker and his colleagues have recently finished a three-year study investigating the reciprocal interactions between wildfire and bark beetles and how they impact landscape structure and wild fire risk. After all the research and money spent in combating the effects of the Bark Beetle, Tinker says it might be best to do nothing in the forest. He says that the forest will come back healthy following a forest fire.
DAN TINKER: I think it’s not only possible but it’s very likely, the evidence we are collecting the evidence following older outbreaks suggests that the surviving trees and advanced regeneration will develop into a new forest again. The trees that survive are going to have a little less competition from the over store now they are gonna have more light water and nutrients available to them so the outlook is good for the trees that weren’t killed, so I don’t think that we have to anything to ensure it, I think it’s gonna happen.
KOCH: According to forest service officials the forest service is revisiting its policy of fighting fires in beetle stricken areas while seeking new ways to prevent future bark beetle epidemics.
For Wyoming Public Radio I am David Koch in Cody.