pine beetle

National Park Service

Pine beetles and drought is leaving Wyoming and other states more susceptible to wildfires than at any point in recent memory, yet the federal fire policy doesn’t seem to be keeping up with the new climate. Wyoming lawmakers are trying to solve the problem.

Melodie Edwards

When you hear the word “boom” in the West, you usually think of the energy industry. But in the last 15 years, there’s been another kind: a timber boom. That’s thanks to the mountain pine beetle, a tiny ravenous bug that’s now chomped its way through over 40 million acres of forest in the U.S., moving north into Canada, expanding its reach as the climate warms.  To clean up all that dead wood, forest managers have turned to the timber industry, leading to a surge in jobs and enterprise. But now, the bugs have almost eaten themselves out of food.

U.S. Forest Service

People have been saying for years that forests ravaged by the mountain pine beetle are more fire-prone than healthy ones. But a new study out this week says, think again. 

University of Colorado researcher Sarah Hart was the lead author on the study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

“Our approach to answering this question was to overlay maps of infested forest that are from the U.S. Forest Service with maps of where fires have burned.”

114,000 new acres of bark beetle kill has been detected in an aerial survey done by the State Forestry Division for 2014. Most of that is in Bridger-Teton and Shoshone National Forests. 

Les Koch is the division’s Forest Health Specialist and says while warmer weather didn’t help in deterring the Pine, Spruce, and Douglas-Fir beetles, they have already killed many of their suitable host trees. While 2014 did see an increase in acres affected, over the last few years the overall trend has been downward.  

biorootenergy.com

The U.S. Department of Agriculture starting a program that pays people to deliver dead trees to power plants that can convert them to biomass fuel.  Large swaths of Wyoming’s forests have been killed by pine beetle infestations and some say they pose a fire danger. Todd Atkinson with the Farm Service Agency says he hopes money will give people the incentive to harvest from more remote areas.

The spread of mountain pine beetles is slowing in Wyoming, according to a survey from the U.S. Forest Service.

Beetles killed 180,000 new acres of trees in 2012, but only 82,000 acres in 2013.

The Forest Service’s Aaron Voos says it’s not surprising.

“They’ve kind of eaten themselves out of house and home,” Voos said. “All of the trees that were susceptible to attack … have been either eaten and are now dead and dying, or they were able to fend off the epidemic and have developed some sort of resiliency.”

Wyoming forest officials anticipate another heavy fire season for this year.

Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser says recent warm winters have been great for the pine beetle population. He adds that Wyoming pine forests are full of densely-packed stands with trees of the same age, which makes them especially vulnerable to beetles, and that makes them more likely to burn.