Forest Service struggles to battle beetles
SUMMIT COUNTY – The Dillon Ranger District is desperately hoping it will receive the funds necessary to halt the explosion of the mountain pine beetle population.
The pest has killed hundreds of trees in and around the Dillon Reservoir-area campgrounds, and rangers expect the problem to multiply if they don’t take significant action quickly.
The beetle bores into the ubiquitous lodgepole pines found throughout the county, carrying with it the blue-stain fungus. Blue-stain clogs the tree’s circulatory system, thus preventing the flow of water and nutrients through the tree. Disruption of nutrient flow, coupled with the beetles’ tunnels, generally kill the tree in one year.
In July 2002, Developed Recreation Manager Howard Scott identified 200 to 300 infested trees for removal around the reservoir. In August 2003, the number jumped to 1,500.
“If nothing is done, that could turn into several thousand trees next year,” Scott said. “Our problem is not presently as big as Vail’s or Grand County’s, but our time is coming. Infestation is approaching epidemic proportions.”
Scott said his efforts against beetle infestation are hindered by a lack of funding. In 2002, he applied for $270,000 to maintain forest health. The Forest Service awarded him $25,000.
“The competition has increased. We lost out to places like Grand County, where the infestation is ahead of ours by two to three years,” Scott said.
Scott said that without taking the appropriate steps, beetle populations will explode here just as they have in those areas. This year, he will apply for about $100,000.
“It’s imperative that I’m successful in getting part of that,” Scott said.
Funds available to Summit County for forest health projects are funneled through the Forest Service’s Lakewood service center, which covers a large region including South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado.
Bob Cain, an entomologist who works at the center, said that forest conditions and the climate are escalating the demand for funds. Warmer winters and increased drought in many areas have led to increased insect problems throughout the region.
“In southwestern Colorado, around Durango, there’s record-breaking drought and insect activity,” Cain said.
Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1990, which does not bode well for beetle control. The colder the winter, the smaller the number of beetles that survive to see the following spring.
Drought breaks down a tree’s primary line of defense against a beetle by inhibiting pitch production. When a beetle invades a tree, the tree produces pitch as a barrier to the insect. Without enough water, the tree can’t make enough pitch to protect itself.
The insect-favorable conditions have contributed to a severe spruce beetle problem in northern Wyoming in addition to pine beetle problems faced by Colorado.
“There’s a fixed amount of money, and the funding for all these projects is coming out of the same pot. It’s difficult to say what’s going to come down in terms of federal dollars,” Cain said.
If Scott receives the requisite funding, he will combat the mountain pine beetle with several tactics.
Most importantly, dead, red trees killed by the beetles will be removed to reduce the immediate fire danger.
“A fire would be catastrophic right now because of all those dead, dry needles,” Scott said. “Hopefully the hunters will be careful out there.”
Scott doesn’t have the money for removal now, but he hopes to have some funding for winter removal. That way, damage to the ground will be minimized as trees are dragged across the snow.
Private concessionaires who run the campgrounds are required to perform some mitigation as part of their contracts. Scott requires them to remove about 300 dead trees per year, and may increase that number in exchange for lowering the fees the concessionaires must pay.
Scott would like to spray some preventive pesticide to inhibit the beetles’ migration to healthy trees. He plans to keep spraying to a minimum, since the pesticide would not be specific to the beetles.
The thinning of large trees to increase airflow also helps to control the beetles. The pheromones emitted by the female beetle to attract a male are diluted, thus limiting reproduction.
The relative lack of diversity in age and species in Summit County forests is one of Scott’s greatest challenges. Because of extensive fires and logging about 130 years ago, local forests contain mostly 130-year old lodgepole pines – the perfect habitat for pine beetles, which only infest trees larger than 9 inches in diameter.
To alleviate the problem, Scott hopes to plant a diverse age and species of trees to reduce beetle-friendly habitat.
“Pine beetles need more to survive than little tiny things,” said Scott. “They need a big condo.”
Faced with stiff competition for funding, Scott said he will do what he can to keep costs down in all of his beetle control efforts.
Under the circumstances, he’s hoping Mother Nature will lend a hand: “We’re hoping for a real cold winter,” he said.
Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-3998 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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