Pine beetles stick around during polar vortex

Western Montana’s sub-zero temperatures still won’t be enough to control its pine bark beetle epidemic.

According to Montana’s Department of Natural Resources, neither last year’s polar vortex nor this November’s cold snap will have much, if any, effect on beetle populations.

Since 2000, pine beetles have infested more than 23 percent of all Montana’s forest land, with the most recent outbreaks occurring in the southern part of the Bitterroot National Forest and in the Big Hole area of the Beaverhead National Forest.

Climate Change Brings Destructive Pine Beetles North: New York and New Jersey Forests in the Cross-Hairs

Residents of the American West are no stranger to the mountain pine beetle -- a native insect that has been around for thousands of years but, thanks to climate change, has devastated many forests in the West in the past twenty years. Anybody who has driven through Colorado in the last few years, only to be confronted by vast expanses of bright red and gray dying trees, can attest to the havoc that an outbreak of pine beetles can wreak. With climate change, these beetle infestations are occurring over a larger range and moving higher up the mountains because the harsh winters and cold snaps needed to kill back the beetles are not occurring as regularly. Similarly, on the east coast, the related southern pine beetle was prevented from spreading too far north by winters in the northeast. Now everything has changed. Gone are the reliably cold winters of the past, and with them pine beetles have begun a predictable and inexorable march north.

In the West, the devastation is already here.

In response to a petition brought by my organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. government declared that the critically important whitebark pine, which inhabits high elevations throughout the Northern Rockies and has no natural defense against beetle attack, should be protected as an endangered species. Mountain pine beetles have also wreaked havoc in Canada, where a 2012 study concluded that the climate-driven pine beetle outbreak in British Columbia "ranks among the largest ecological disturbances recorded in Canada so far." In fact, changes to Canadian forests are so great that, if they continue, the loss of trees could actually raise local temperatures by as much as 1 degree, a particularly nasty feedback loop.

Corvallis students conduct live streaming broadcast on beetles

Corvallis High School “Classroom Without Walls” science students conducted a live streaming broadcast about the ecology of the mountain pine beetle from a remote location in the Bitterroot National Forest last week.

“Live in five minutes,” said Hunter Condos the “IT Guy” for the broadcast. The “set” featured the majestic ponderosa pines in a clearing on the mountain about a half-hour south of Corvallis. Fresh air and quiet – except for bird chirps – surrounded the nervous students.

The students used a web camera operated by Mollie DuBose, a laptop run by Hunter Condos, and a secondary video camera operated by Dallas Ewalt. Anchors/hosts were Morgan Weidow and Ronny Jessop and reporters/information experts were Lorenzo Wissenbach, Tyler Evans, Taia Tully and Kira Doyle.


How a beetle outbreak may have caused two sawmill explosions in B.C.

t’s a bug the size of a grain of rice, but it has an appetite as big as British Columbia.

With a little help from climate change, the mountain pine beetle has killed or infected 8.7 million hectares of the province’s lodgepole pine forest since 2005. That’s an area almost three times the size of Vancouver Island.

If you’re looking for the cause of the sawmill explosions that killed four workers and injured dozens more in 2012, the beetle is a good place to start.

Don't blame the beetles

When the evergreen trees turned red, it was hard not to worry. The die-offs started in Alaska about 20 years ago, and soon conifers were perishing en masse across western North America. Life drained from millions of hectares of forest so quickly it was as if they had been abruptly unplugged, like a Christmas tree before bedtime.

The killers: tiny insects called bark beetles. Many people worried that the dead, dry trees would give birth to huge, damaging wildfires. To prevent infernos, some U.S. lawmakers pushed expensive, controversial policies to aggressively log beetle-damaged trees. “We are battling a huge insect epidemic that is destroying our forests” and creating “prime real estate for forest fires,” warned then-Representative John Salazar, a Democrat from Colorado, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006. To some casual observers, the prediction seemed to come true as blazes such as the 2012 High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Colorado, set records for hectares burned and homes destroyed.

But that fire, like others, burned green forest as well as beetle-killed trees. And now, a growing body of research—including a study published last week—is challenging the notion that beetle-killed forests are more vulnerable to severe fires than forests that have escaped infestation. The findings are highlighting the complex causes of western wildfires and raising new questions about policies that promote the removal of insect-damaged trees to reduce fire risks. Contrary to popular belief, says forest ecologist Thomas Veblen of the University of Colorado (CU), Boulder, the science suggests that “healthy forests [can] include fire, and bark beetles, and lots of dead trees.”