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Fall is a’coming

The Clark’s Nutcrackers are congregating, waiting for the Limber Pine cones to ripen.  You can tell they’ve arrived as they are a noisy bunch.  As Jays, they are super-intelligent birds.  Every year they cache tens of thousands of seeds and are able to memorize the location of their stashes.  Clark Nutcrackers have a distinctive ‘wing-whirl’, which is a loud noise they make when flying.  Although the pine cones aren’t ready yet, they seem anxious, waiting for just the right moment to steal the seeds away from the waiting red squirrels who also cache the cones for winter food.  I’ve been watching the birds  eating insects while they while away their time.

This year is not only a bad cone year for White Bark pines, but the Limber Pine cone production is  down as well.  This bodes poorly for bears.  But the good news is that with all the rain we’ve had, the berry crop is up.  The chokecherry crop is one of the best in years and I’m waiting with my trail cam for some bears to spend time stripping the berries off the branches before the birds get to them.  The bears seem to know the exact time when they’re ripe, and come around for that week only. And with all the beetle kill, the forests are opening up and changing.  I’ve seen new understories packed with chokecherry bushes–all full of cherries.  

Grizzly bears evolved in the plains.  They can’t climb trees like their forest adapted cousins, the black bears, and their massive claws were meant to dig out roots.  Pushed from their native habitat into the mountains, they prefer burn areas and meadows, places that emulate their native past.  Our mountain forests are rapidly changing with all the downed timber, creating good habitat for the Great Bear.

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

The little forest next to my house is a perfect example and a fine study area of a rapidly evolving landscape.  With seven springs emerging from the limestone base, there is sufficient water ground water.  The  old growth Englemann Spruce are dead and dying, falling to the ground and leaving large openings where new chokecherry bushes, dogwoods, raspberries, gooseberries, and aspens are rapidly emerging.  This is an area we specifically asked the Forest Service NOT to put in their logging plans.

In contrast, the lands adjacent to the springs are private and were logged by the homeowners through the State Forestry Office (who were concerned about fire protective barriers) 5 years ago.  Approximately 90% of the trees were cut or were blow downs.  This land too has aspens, gooseberries, and grasses–but much of it has a very high ratio, maybe 10:1, of invasives, particularly Canada Thistle.  The combination of moisture, sun, and rapid disturbance provided a perfect storm for the invasives.  The invasives rob moisture and space for other natives that might get a stronghold.  In the non-logged side, the lesson is clear:   slower is better and the forest can naturally restore itself with little interference by man.

 

Into the fold–working with Mother Nature’s garden

I’ve got big planting plans–at least for me, up here.  When I moved here, I was happy to NOT have a garden.  Don’t get me wrong, I love plants, designing with them and caring for them, but you know, it is work.  I grew hundreds of species of plants in my California yard for pleasure and to learn about them.  All professional gardeners, at least the good ones, need their laboratory.  I always said, it you haven’t killed dozens of plants and moved plants dozens of times, then you’re not yet initiated into the fold.

That being said, when I moved here, wild nature was my self-tending garden and Oh, what enjoyment.  It still is and forever will be.  But the itch remains, and I do believe we humans can be caretakers and tenders in a good way.  So this year, not only am I continuing the ritual of planting tree liners, but I’m adding a few things to my plant order.

First, the liners.  My elevation and environment is chock full of Limber Pines.  Douglas firs move in naturally in a process called succession as the pines die off.  Higher up on the ridges are the favorite nuts of the bears–White Bark Pine nuts.  White Bark Pines in the GYE are functionally extinct.  I think its about 70% are dead and the others are dying…first weakened and dying from Blister Rust and then the final blow is coming from the beetle infestations rampaging the West.  But the bears will resort to Limber Pine nuts (a favorite food for the Indians that lived around here as well) in poor White Bark nut years.  Limber pines are smaller, and more difficult to extract, but they’ll do to fatten the bears up.  But Limber Pines are also in the Whitebark Pine family and susceptible to the rust (a European import from the 20’s; we’ll say that’s NOT good tending and caretaking).  The beetles are killing the Limber Pines as well.

A beautiful windswept Limber Pine in the Clarks Fork Canyon

My understanding of White Bark Pines is that it takes 50 years before they make seeds!  Wow.  Probably Limber pines are similar.  So I’m trying to replant seedlings now for later with the hopes of them being around when I am not and helping future bears.

One note of worth is that my two oldest limber pines on the property, probably 200-300 years old, were riddled with beetles last summer and I wept.  Beetles like older trees.  Neither are red-needled yet so I’m dancing with prayers around them metaphorically.  One is questionable as 1/2 of it is dying, but the other, the very oldest, so far is good.  I put up a painted elk skull on it last spring to ward off evil spirits and evil beetles.  Maybe it worked.

I order my ‘liners’, essentially seedling trees about 2″ tall, from the local conservation service in town–30 in a bundle.

Last years liners Douglas firs and Limber pines

Last year they told me they didn’t have my Limber Pines in stock, but at the last minute they found some.  This year they definitely don’t have any.  So I am trying a BIG experiment.  I ordered 30 Pinyon Pines.  They say they can make it at this altitude (for sure I’ve seen them higher up in lower latitudes in Nevada), and since our winters are not as cold as they used to be, I’m giving it a shot.  Good nuts for bears in the future.

Polymer crystals are an essential when planting in dry areas without irrigation

But my old gardening bug seems to be itching, and I’m purchasing 5 bare-root elderberries from the nursery, as well as, get this, 2 plum trees.  The plums are a big experiment in Bear country.  I am not crazy enough to plant apples, but my neighbor has a pear tree and not only gets pears but the bears don’t touch it.  So I’ll try two plums and see how it goes.

As for the Elderberries, they are native to around here, both black and red.  When you see them in moist locations, the deer keep them munched all summer to around 2-3′!  Elderberries can grow 10′ tall.  We have a riparian area, and I’m going to plant and cage these from the deer.  Supposedly the variety can get 10’x10′, so after 5′ I won’t have to worry.  Good food for me, the birds and the bears.

Squirrels, Bears, and birds: What’s the connection?

The Clark’s Nutcrackers have been very busy over the last month.  So have the squirrels.  They’re both competing for the Limber Pine seeds that grow around here.  The birds extract and stash seeds.  The squirrels create middens with stored seeds and cones.  The bears let these animals do their work, then rob the middens.

Clark's Nutcracker

It is really amazing to watch the Nutcrackers.  They are so adept at using their beak to extract the seed.  Limber pine cones are full of sap, really sticky.  I’ve watched a bird work a cone, sometimes to just get sap or a bad seed.  The bird cleans it’s beak quickly and works another seed hole.

Squirrels too can work a cone very quickly and efficiently.  Both squirrels and Nutcrackers seem to know exactly which seed is viable or not.  I’m sure it has something to do with its weight.  Sometimes I find a cone on the ground with a few seeds left in it.  Invariably those seeds are empty, either with worm holes or they just didn’t mature.

Meanwhile, after working hard on caching all these seeds, the bears are coming around robbing all the caches they can find.

There’s a black bear working my neighborhood intensely, day after day.  His scat is everywhere,  mostly full of pine shells.  The scat even smells like pine nuts…you can smell the rich fatty odors.

Loaded with pine nut debris

Yesterday I drove down my driveway only to find a huge stump in the middle of the road.  I got out to move it, I looked up the hillside where it had rolled down from, and saw that this bear had completely worked over an old middens.  He’d turned over the soil so much that the chickadees were having a field day.

Dug out middens on my hillside near the house

What a nice circle of feeding and robbing…birds and squirrels feed the bears who feed the birds.

Squirrel above robbed middens angry at me. "I didn't do it" I told him

Limber Pine and Doug Fir seedling trees–reforesting my property

I finally got my tree seedling order.  I almost didn’t get my Limber Pines, but at the last minute the CCD found at least 1/2 my order.  Today was a frigid day, hovering around 35 degrees with a chilling wind–perfect for planting.  I gathered up my pick, several containers of left-over chippings from splitting wood last fall, a can of polymer crystals, and the plants and off I went to the back forty of the property.

What I used for mulch...leftovers from splitting wood

Since the trees were in tubes, just little things, I thought it would be no problem planting the 60 that I had.  But the ground is all rock, so planting just 15 today was enough.   I dug all the holes first, excavating about twice as wide as deep.  The depth should be no more than the plant itself.  Remove all the rocks, but save them for later.

For a long time now I’ve noticed and wondered why the limber pines seemed to congregate next to large boulders, sometimes even growing in a boulder pocket.  Today I solved the mystery.  Believe it or not, it was way easier to dig a hole next to a boulder—even next to one that had a tree by it that I had to cut down because of beetle kill (meaning there would be roots nearby).  That was because between the wind and snow, over years and years soil tended to pile up against the rocks.  Elsewhere, in the open, there was so little soil, mostly rock, that when I went to plant the tiny tree I had a hard time finding enough actual soil to refill the hole.

I learned fast and started digging next to rocks.  I also know that Limber Pines regenerate nicely after fires.  Although the pines themselves are not specifically fire adapted, after a fire when the birds cache their seeds, the seeds grow quickly in a newly burnt area.  With that in mind, I planted in the areas where I burnt brush piles this winter.  Those areas were also really easy to dig in.  Why?  Although there were still rocks there, there were NO roots to contend with from grasses.  The soil was thick and loose there.

Mystery solved!

One interesting thing that happened…I saw a nice start for a hole by a rock and thought to put a tree there.  I dug the hole around a bit deeper and uncovered a cache of meat!  Some animal this winter (the meat smelled fresh still) had cached several fistfuls of what looked to me like deer meat.  The meat was not chewed or regurgitated, but in slabs.  Koda immediately grabbed the chunks and re-cached them elsewhere.

Where the cache was.

In planting each tree, I added a small amount of polymer crystals.

This stuff is a good moisure keeper

I used these before and highly recommend them where it will be difficult to water and in order to give plants a start.  Since there is no irrigation nor water available where I’m planting, these crystals will absorb a great amount of water and expand about 5 times their size.  Then they slowly release the moisture.  Another but much more expensive alternative used on oaks in California is a product called Dri-Water.  But watch out with the crystals. Newcomers to the product tend to think they’re not putting hardly enough in the hole.  If you go over the recommended amount, the crystals ‘bubble’ out of the soil like an alien.

I filled the hole, being careful to keep the roots straight and deep, putting some crystals on the bottom of the hole, some in the middle after filling.  Tamped the soil down around the tree, making sure I didn’t plant the tree too deeply.  Never plant a tree deeper than its crown.  In this case, with the seedling so small, basically don’t plant it lower than it is in the pot.  Then I mulched the tree with my wood chips.  If you use a tight mulch, like from a store bought bag, then you have to be careful again about smothering the crown.  I’ve planted a lot of California natives and the one thing they are all sensitive to is crown rot.  Its better to plant too high on a mound so moisture runs off.  But in this case, in a state where it snows but rarely rains, planting on a mound seemed like overkill.  The chips are natural and loose, allowing air to pass through.

Burn areas were easy to dig in

Remember we saved all the rocks.  I took those rocks and placed them around the tree and over the mulch.  I’ve found that rocks can be one of the best mulches as they keep the moisture in underneath.

Lastly, I put a seedling tree guard around each tree.  Unfortunately they only had a few left of these at CCD from last year.  I’m used to using these in California on native trees in outlying areas.  They give the seedling a chance for protection against browsing.  I cut these in half because I’m having a difficult time finding them for sale around Cody.  None of the stores even know what I’m talking about.

Can you tell which are the Pines and which are the Douglas Firs?

The reason I like these is because they’re easy and also yellow, making it easy for me to find the seedlings to water them over the summer.  Of course, I can use homemade chicken wire ones; or take coat hanger wire, make an umbrella and throw netting over it.  Just make sure each year to raise the height to accommodate the tree growth.  But I prefer these simple plastic tubes.  I hope I can find more.

I’ll have to hand water these guys about every 2 weeks for the first year, even with the polymers.  If I succeed in a 50% viability I’ll be happy.  Natives are hard to start.  Probably the 2nd year it would be good to water them 1 time/month.  By the third year they should be on their own.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Beetle infested forest–How I would have approached it

View of the forest next to my home last winter

Here is the little forest next to my property last winter

This small forest is almost exclusively spruce.  Springs from higher up feed the area, making it swampy in many places.   The springs are on public land; the forest you see in the photo is on the private lands of several homeowners.  It is a small island of conifers surrounded on both sides by meadow.  The springs run through and feed into Elk Creek, a wetland drainage with willows harboring moose most of the year.

I walked the forest everyday last year.  Many of the spruce were either downed, standing dead, infested or going to be infested.  It wasn’t easy to walk through the forest with so much deadfall.  Yet these spruce were old growth, up to 200 years or more.  The forest harbored at least three kinds of owls, moose, bear, deer, coyotes, turkeys, and lots of birds.  Wolves traveled through on occasion.  Hawks fed on smaller birds and squirrels.  I’d seen weasel tracks.  The forest was alive all the time, and changing.

The State of Wyoming acquired some funds to clear beetle infested areas around structures as part of their fire prevention program.  Homeowners were offered so many dollars to clear around their structures up to several acres.  The homeowners who owned these woods pooled the dollars offered by the State, and with the State Forester’s help, hired a local logging contractor to clear the woods.  It was recommended that all deadfall, standing dead, infested, and larger trees (even if not infested on the premise that they’d soon be infested) be removed.  Aspens were to remain.  Young spruce would remain.  The money was there, now, this year only, so the homeowners decided to do the complete logging job in one fell swoop.   Here is what it looks like today, from the same viewpoint.Same forest this winter after cutting

In the photo below, the area thick with trees on the right is National Forest property.  The left side is the private lands.  One thing to note is that on the National Forest side, although there are some spruce, its steeper (not visible in photo), therefore drier, and has predominately Douglas firs, not yet infested.Public Forest not logged is on the right.  Logged on left are private lands

Closer up

You can see the fence divide between National forest & Private cuts

OK, personally, here is how I would have done it.  First, I’d assume a seven year plan.  I’d use the money available the first year and do the logging by hand, therefore preventing all the compaction and destruction caused by the large machinery.

Around any structures I would have cleared all infested and dead trees, leaving a fire break near the structure.

Next I would have selected ‘red trees’, that is, dead standing trees with their needles still attached.  These trees can be torches and should be removed.

Then I would clear the forest floor by doing burns in place where possible.  The giant brush piles in the photo above will burn so hot that it will take a lot of time for the grass to return.

That would be my priority for the first year.  I would put the forest on a seven to ten year plan of slowly clearing, opening up areas selectively for the regeneration of Aspen and Willows.  The forest certainly needed attention as there probably hasn’t been fires here in over 100 years.  By slowly clearing, animal homes and cover would be saved and new habitat created naturally.   Many animals used this forest as a corridor to travel yet stay hidden, especially moose.  The moose used the shade in hot afternoons after browsing on the willows in the marsh areas below.

In addition, now I can see my neighbors.  This could have been prevented.  Being that none of this forest is on my property, I really had no clout, only an opinion that I voiced.  But the fear of rampant fire seemed to cloud and dominant, as well as the available funding and the recommendations of the State agencies funding the project.

It will take years to regenerate even a little bit of cover.  Eventually, though not in my lifetime, Aspens will take over this area and that is a good thing.  The Willows will come first, but even before that I predict a giant infestation of Canadian thistle that will need to be hand controlled.  By clearing slowly, methodically, with sensitivity, the forest could regenerate at a more natural pace.

Tonight I caught a program on NPR about deforestation in Indonesia.  The Indonesian government has been giving private logging firms the right to log ancient community forests.  The local indigenous peoples are starving without their food source–the forest and its inhabitants.  I listened to a government agent say “This forest is declining and should be cut”.  Then I heard an indigenous leader say “This forest contains small streams that give us water, animals like tigers, orangutans and birds, and other animals we hunt for food, and plants we need for medicine.”  I ask you:  Whom of these two parties knows more about forest management?

Reefs, Bears, and the Beartooths

On of the unusual features of this area are the ‘reefs’, long cliffs exposed in the mountainsides.  There’s a beautiful area nearby that I’ve been exploring this summer called Reef Creek.

Reefs

Reefs

A forest service road winds precariously up to the top of the reef, where you discover you’re now driving on a totally flattened surface.  You can walk to the edge of the cliffs and its a sheer drop down.  Parts of the dirt road even look like they’ve been paved.  That’s because you’re on pure rock in areas.

I’ve walked the entire road in pieces including the uphill.  I finally discovered the road’s end (of course, many people have 4-wheeled to the end without walking…but to walk it is to know it) at a small creek, aptly named Reef Creek.  Beyond is a well maintained trail that loops over a pass and back into my valley.

I hiked a few miles up the trail the other day.  The trail winds in high country, although fairly flat, and is home to abundant stands of White Bark Pines.  Alarmingly, most of the mature trees were dead from beetle kill.

White bark pines dead on Reef Creek

White bark pines dead on Reef Creek

I had seen old signs of grizzly scat with pine nuts in it.  I thought of the Great Bear and how difficult it must be to find viable cones.  Bears probably have their favorite haunts.  I imagined them returning here, only to find the cupboards bare.

I climbed higher and finally discovered a few niches of live mature stands.  There are young white barks alive among the dead, but they won’t be producing for 30 or 40 years.

I also encountered the newest addition to my tree list, Abies lasiocarpa or the Sub-Alpine fir.  Its beautiful smooth bark and christmas tree look make it easy to identify.  Abies, or true firs, always have their cones standing upright.  Picea, or spruce, have their cones pendulous (P in the Picea can stand for pendulous).  The botany lumpers and splitters seem to be warring again over exactly if there is a different species named A. bifolia that is almost a look-alike.  But for now, lasiocarpa is good enough for me.

Abies lasiocarpa

Abies lasiocarpa

In contrast to this scene of dying trees, I took a ride up to the Beartooths just two days ago.  I wanted to see this gorgeous area before the road closed.  I was not disappointed.  The mosquitos were gone.  And better than that, I spent the afternoon hiking at Island Lake and didn’t see one person.  The White Barks I encountered around the lakes there appeared healthy although I have never seen much bear sign in the higher elevations of the Beartooths. One of the WG&F bear specialists told me that there aren’t many moth sites they know of there so it’s not a frequented area by many Grizzlies.

The afternoon was warm and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.Beartooth in fall

Beartooths

Fish in the beartooths

Fish in the beartooths

Ahh, not a soul around

Ahh, not a soul around

Clark’s Nutcracker and some five needled pines

Every morning I take a walk on the open meadows above my house dotted with Limber Pines.  Limber pines are technically in the white bark pine ‘family’, which consists of all pines with a cluster of 5 needles.  So when people say ‘That’s not a white bark pine, but a limber pine”, technically they are right and wrong.

Pinus albicaulis is the latin for the White Bark Pine, which is in the white bark pine group because its a 5 needled pine.  The Greater Yellowstone is at the very southern end of Pinus albicaulis territory.  Its a white bark pine that grows at very high altitudes.

I live at around 7,000 feet and, although we have P. albicaulis on our ridgelines, my zone consists of Pinus flexilis, or Limber Pine, another 5 needled pine.  Both produce cones with large, tasty seeds.  And its difficult to tell the two pines apart.  The best way is to look at the cones.  P. albicaulis cones are purple and disintegrate on the tree.  P. flexilis stay intact, are the usual grey/brown, and fall to the ground.

In the mornings on my walk, there’s lots of chatter these days.  The Clark’s Nutcrackers are busy. Clark's Nutcracker Their wings make a whirlwind noise, but their raspy call is distinct.  I watch them take their long beak and skillfully pluck out the large seeds.  They do it upside down or right side up.   Between the busy red squirrels caching all the seeds (they are also amazing to watch as they work the cones like an ear of corn) and the birds, its a wonder there’s any seeds left.  The crop seems to be good this year, as most of the trees have lots of good cones with few worms.  If I watch the squirrels, they know which ones have the worms and which are intact.  But I can always find a few opened cones on the trees, low down that I can reach, that have some missed seeds to eat.  My problem is that the cones are so full of sap, I’m a sticky mess just for a few pine nuts.

The nuts are good.  They taste like pinyon pine nuts (which is a 1 needled pine) and are about as big.  Some of the best and biggest pine nuts I’ve ever tasted are from the Italian Stone pine, Pinus pinea.  Its a beautiful tree and commonly cultivated.  But the Limber Pine nuts are good too, just harder to get out because they are tucked way down inside.

Limber pine cone with seeds

Limber pine cone with seeds and lots of sap

Limber, White Bark, and the Clark’s Nutcracker have evolved a unique marriage.  The two pines are dependent upon the bird for seed dispersal.  Unlike the fire adaptation of Lodgepole pines, whose seed cones open with heat, Limber and White Bark pines disperse their seeds through the bird, and prefer to sprout on the fertile soils after fires.

I asked a grizzly expert at the Shoshone ranger station if grizzlies will sometimes eat the seeds of limber pines.

“Not usually, because they are harder to get out, but they will.”

Grizzlies will reach up for the P. albicaulis seeds; they’ll climb up; and they are smart and look for the stashes of red squirrels and raid them.

By the way, after getting some pine nuts out of the sappy cones, I’m full of sap.  How to get rid of sap on your hands:  take some vegetable oil and rub it around; leave on for a minute; then wash with soap. Voila! Its out.  On your clothes?  Use a little WD40 before you wash.

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.

Pheromones, Pine Beetles, and more about fires.

I talked with the Wyoming Dept. of Forestry today.  Apparently, the state deals with private landowners, not the forest service.  I’m definitely going to go for ordering pheromones for my trees. Paul in the department told me that, yes!, the grizzlies do use the Limber Pine nuts as well as the Pinus albicaulus.  He also told me that because of lack of fires, the Limber Pines have become an invasive on rangeland.  Of course, I don’t have rangeland.  I butt up to a National forest full of Limber Pines from 7000′ all the way up to 8200′ or more.

He said they’ve been doing a lot of management with the North Fork and South Fork, but up till a few years ago, my area was doing okay enough.  “Not anymore” we both acknowledged.  The south facing slopes across from me are full of beetle kill on the ridge tops.  The end of my valley that butts up against the Park is now about 50-70% dead trees. Compare that to the east entrance to the Park (up the North Fork) which is about 90% dead standing timber.

The fires of ’88 came through parts of my valley and through Crandall, which is north of me.  In fact, the tiny town of Crandall was almost entirely engulfed and thanks to a major effort, was saved.  When you drive by Crandall, you can see where the fires came down almost to the town.  Apparently, it was some of the hottest fires.  Now the hillsides are regenerating with Aspens.  Cathedral Cliffs along Chief Joseph Highway

The point is, those fires near me in ’88 helped form a buffer from the pine beetle which spared my area up till now.  But like the economy, those fires of ’88 just ‘kicked the can down the road’, and now my valley’s time is up; due for a big fire.

This winter there’s been logging trucks on my dirt road daily.  The biggest private landowner is logging beetle kill around his property for fire protection.  The Game & Fish clear-cut a big swath of spruce and fir to make way for aspen growth, and the neighbor to my east is cutting and burning beetle kill weekly.  Everyone is aware: its only a matter of time till the fires come this way.

The thing about the blister rust on my trees is that they’ve weakened the pines, along with the many years of drought.  Paul said that usually the rust doesn’t kill the trees, especially in the Rockies due to the dryness.  And I can see that’s true.  These are older pines and surviving despite the brown needles.  But then the pine beetle finishes them off.

This is not a spruce or pine beetle but a wood-eating beetle that eats dead wood. They are scary looking though and BIG!

So I have a choice.  Spray with Sevin or use the Pheromone packets.  The spray lasts for 2 to 3 years.  The Pheromones only one.  But its a no-brainer for me.  I’m just not going to use a non-targeted toxic chemical.  Non-targeted in the sense that it kills beetles, and also other insects that could be beneficial; plus the other types of toxicity.

The pheromones simply are a chemical mimic that tell the beetles “This tree is occupied with beetles already.  Go find another tree.”  If you already have beetles in a tree, neither the chemical nor the pheromones will work.

Paul will come over and look at my property.  Its fairly expensive at $7/packet; but its for a good cause.  What we discussed is instead of just tagging important trees, I’ll do a grid of packets over my 6 acres.  When he comes over, we’ll look at the density and see if I need less than the 30 pkts/acre, which I think I will.  May is the target month to put the packets on the trees.  The beetles fly in July and August.