Pine beetles spread to 3.6M acres in Colorado, Wyoming
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER – Tree-killing beetles have infested another 524,000 acres of pine trees in Colorado and southern Wyoming, boosting the total outbreak to 3.6 million acres in the region, according to a report released Friday.
The infestation that started more than a decade ago in Colorado’s north-central mountains is growing more rapidly east of the Continental Divide and shows signs of moving south, state and federal forest managers said.
“We’ve just watched this thing balloon in incredible fashion,” said Rick Cables, head of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region.
The spread of the beetle that gobbled more than a half million acres of trees in northern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming last year is a national priority for the Forest Service, Cables said during a news conference.
In December, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that another $40 million would be funneled to the Rockies to attack the problem.
Also, the kind of national management team that usually oversees large wildfires will spend the next two years coordinating responses to the epidemic. The team expects to release a draft plan by the end of February.
Other Western states have beetle infestations, including Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and eastern Washington. About 330,000 acres of trees in the 1.2 million-acre Black Hills National Forest of western South Dakota have been infected.
Several factors, however, have heightened concerns about the outbreak in Colorado and Wyoming, Cables said. The region has more infrastructure, larger populations and high recreation use, including ski areas, he said.
Another big worry is the potential damage to waterways if the huge swaths of dead trees burn and erosion occurs. Colorado’s mountains are the headwaters for several major river systems.
“These mountains, west of Denver here, are the watershed for much of the West,” Cables said.
In 2002, a fire burned about 215 square miles in the foothills west of Denver, causing erosion that threatened a reservoir that is a main water source for Denver.
Some critics have questioned spending so much money to remove the infected trees. Researchers, including University of Colorado professor Tom Veblen, have said climate – hot, dry weather – drives forest fires, and that dead trees are no more of a fire risk than live ones.
While bark beetle infestations are considered part of natural cycles, experts said drought and warmer temperatures are making the current outbreak worse. The region hasn’t had prolonged freezing temperatures that would help kill the bugs, and drought has weakened the trees.
The beetles, about the size of a match head, lay their eggs inside the tree, turning the green needles to the color of rust as they feed on the tree and restrict its ability to draw water. The needles eventually fall off.
State and federal forestry agencies and landowners have cut tens of thousands of acres of trees. Cables said falling trees endanger hundreds of miles of power lines and thousands of miles of roads and trails.
Campgrounds in Wyoming and Colorado have been temporarily closed because of toppling trees.
Precipitation has been more normal the last couple of years, which has helped some trees resist the insects, said Susan Gray, head of the regional Forest Service’s forest health management group.
But the beetles, which had attacked mainly lodgepole pines, are moving into ponderosa pines in the mountains and foothills west of the cities along Colorado’s Front Range. Larimer County, north of the Denver metro area, saw the largest increase of pine beetles last year: 280,000 acres to 500,000 acres.
The bugs have killed 700,000 acres of trees in southern Wyoming. Another 116,000 acres were stricken in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest last year.
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