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Pine Beetles, Spruce Beetles, and what to do?

The County Fire Warden and the State Forester paid a visit to my neighbors last week.  There’s some money in the till to help homeowners clear dead and dying trees from their properties.  Since my area is full of beetle kill, and getting worse exponentially every year, we’re sitting ducks for a big forest fire.  The fires are going to happen, and need to happen for a variety of reasons, and the number one issue of fire fighters is saving structures (and lives of course).  If we can help out beforehand, all the better.

My neighbors and I have been talking about the little forest that surrounds us for several years.  Its mainly Spruce (Picea engelmannii)–old Spruce–and they are being hit hard by the beetles.   In fact, one of my friends counted the rings on a downed large tree–185!  That’s almost 200 years old, the average life span of a Spruce.

The Douglas Firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) interspersed amongst them seem to be healthy for now, and all around the outskirts where there is light, as well as the areas where the spruce have fallen, Aspens are coming up.  The small forest is half private lands and half National Forest.  Its sits below a shelf of limestone where the springs run–our drinking water.  So the area is wet, and sometimes swampy.  The Spruce like this.  Upslope above the springs, it’s mainly Douglas firs.  Higher than that, there is less ground water and the forest turns into a mix of Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis) and Doug Fir.

I don’t own land in the Spruce forest so I was not a part of the walk-through, but I was told that the way the money from the State will flow is more reimbursement for the first acre around structures, and then the reimbursement percentage diminishes the further out you go from buildings.  The recommendation was to have one logging company do the whole job.  It wouldn’t be clear-cut.  They’d be taking out dead standing trees as well as clearing (probably burning) ground fuels.  The spruce are in such bad shape that there’s no money in it for useable timber.  Its good for firewood and/or log cabins.

My friend who was a forester for over 30 years cleared up some misnomers for me.  I asked him if it was true that standing dead trees were no more a fire hazard than standing live trees.

“True”, he said, “but trees with dead needles are like a torch.  Dead needleless trees are equally a fire hazard as live green ones.  What’s the real hazard is all the ground fuel.  Crown fires can’t usually continue very far unless they have fuel below to ladder them up.”

I made a point to mention to the State Forester that our small forest is home to moose, three species of owls, deer, turkeys, bears, and various obvious small birds and mammals.  Sensitive logging is imperative.

When they had finished with the Spruce forest, they showed up on my property and we walked to my upper area which is Limber Pine exclusively.  When I first got the property several years ago, there were no dead trees.  Last year I noticed I had blister rust, which I’m sure they’ve had for years.  But this winter I had several trees suddenly die on me from pine beetle.  I was anxious for the State Forester to see my trees, their health, and show me how to identify beetles and explain in detail their life cycle.

Apparently, the pine beetle has a one year life cycle as opposed to the spruce beetle which has a two year cycle.  The beetles fly sometime in the late spring, find a tree or trees (they look for larger ones), lay their eggs, and the larvae overwinter and feed on the tree.  The beetles make tunnels, called galleries, laying their eggs as they go along (and eating the tree as well).  The Forester found a cluster of infested trees on my property in one area.

Last years kill

Last years kill

He took an axe and cut into the bark, exposing the tissue of the tree beneath and showed us the galleries along with a beetle (quite small).

This tree is a goner

This tree is a goner

The identifying feature on my Pine trees is the frass(tissue or wood of the tree) at the base of the tree as well as the holes with pitch and frass where the beetles have bored and the tree is trying to ‘pitch’ them out.

Frass at base of tree

Frass at base of tree

If the infestation isn’t too bad, if the tree isn’t stressed by other factors such as drought or disease, then a tree can usually fend off the beetles by producing a lot of sap or pitch in the wound, just like your body might get rid of a splinter.  But between the extended drought years and the blister rust, many of my trees are succumbing.

Tree trying to pitch out beetle

Tree trying to pitch out beetle

What can I do?  Not much.  The pines that are dead no longer have beetles in them.  I can use them for firewood or leave them standing dead (better to take most of them down to reduce the fire hazard, although Limber Pines usually don’t present much of a fire hazard as they burn out).  The ones that have infestations this year I should cut down this winter and burn them onsite.  Burning will kill the larvae, insuring those beetles won’t fly next spring.  And the old specimen trees I want to save I could put pheromones on (He says that’s iffy at best) or spray with Sevin (toxic chemical) which works well.

In addition, I’ve noticed that there are very few young trees on my property, or on the Forest Service property next to mine.  This is probably due to a combination of drought, poor seed production, and blister rust, which has hit the young trees hard.  I suggested, and they agreed, that I begin a planting project of seedlings.  There’s no money for replanting in Wyoming.  Montana or Idaho might give homeowners money for that, but Wyoming doesn’t (not a heavily forested state).  I’d be planting for the future.  Pinus flexilis takes about 40 or 50 years before it begins to cone and produce.

One thing I can do is pray for 2 weeks of cold weather.  20 degrees below zero for two consecutive weeks kills the larvae.  We haven’t had that for years, and with global warming (or climate change, whatever you want to call it), that kind of cold is getting harder and harder to come by.

For now, it looks like the trees have ‘the plague’.

This tree looks like it has smallpox!

This tree looks like it has smallpox!

Of course, these cycles are natural in nature.  The Spruce will disappear and be replaced by Aspen, as well as young spruce and doug fir.  The Limber and White Bark are more problematic–between non-native Blister rust and native pine beetles killing whole forests, these pines contain nuts that are the fall food for Grizzlies.  They need the fat for their winter hibernation.  Pine nuts are to the Grizzlies of the Rockies as Salmon is for Grizzlies of Alaska; and as the trees disappear, another food source will be needed.  With warmer winters come shorter hibernation periods.  I suspect that will mean more Grizzly/human interactions and that, of course, means bad news for the bears.  Bears never are the winners in conflicts with humans, at least in the long run.

Last summer I spotted a government vehicle next to a nearby Aspen grove.  I stopped and chatted with the plant pathologist working on a 5 year Federally funded Aspen study in the Western U.S.

“The Aspens in Colorado are dying, by the droves, and no one knows why,”  he told me.

I asked about our trees.

“They’re just dying of the usual pests and diseases.”

Things are changing all over the West, in so many unpredictable, unusual, and new ways.  Dogwoods, Magnolias, and Redwoods once grew in Yellowstone, millions of years ago.  Twenty two different species of Redwoods were native to the United States.  Now only two species grow in just a tiny portion of California.  We’re in for some big changes.

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5 Responses

  1. As you say, this is a natural cycle (though it’s exacerbated by Global Warming) and there is not much we can do.

    You can hang pheromone patches on individual trees you want to save–these give a signal to beetles that “this tree is full–go find another.”

    Bears, grouse, and other critters that depend on whitebark pine nuts will probably adapt to other food sources. Problem is, how many coevolved food sources can say a grizz lose before it cannot adapt further? Cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake (replaced by exotic lake trout), whitebarks, habitat encroachment by ranches & subdivisions etc… Where will it end? How much of this wonderful land can we save?

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  2. Here in Central Washington fires are still burning through 100,000 acres of forests damaged by the beetle. Informative piece. Thanks. I’m going to link it to my blog post for today.

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    • Just realized this was a post from 2009, but it was certainly relevant. It popped up when I googled spruce beetle.

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      • Martha, there isn’t too much we can do about the beetle kill. It’s exacerbated by lack of cold winters anymore, and 100 years of fire suppression. The beetles tend to go for the older trees first. If you have some special trees on your property you want to protect, you can purchase pheromone packets. But the outlook is dismal. Here is WY the FS says the infestation is slowing down, but what I see (and they confirm) is that it is just going higher up to high altitudes. The white bark pines are all but functionally dead here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

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  3. […] fires merged, still burning through forests already damaged by the spruce beetle and pine beetle. (The Human Footprint, 2009, informative and timely post blog post.) Our western forests are changing from what they […]

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