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The bug in the wood pile

December 16, 2009

This little critter, the pine bark beetle, is presently running amok in the forests of western America, including the Black Hills National Forest.  It’s like nothing anyone has seen before and all we’re hearing is that the forests have to be cut and burned in order to save them.  Silviculture apparently designed by Gen. Westmoreland and Sec. McNamara.  (Look it up kids.)

I can attest to the little bug’s staying power.  Lee was collecting insects for this semester’s invertebrate biology class and after the cold settled in during October, he went for the low hanging fruit and went out to a beetle kill area and stripped back the bark on some newly infected trees and collected lots of the little critters.  He took them home in plastic bags and put them in his mother’s freezer with the other specimens that tended to unsettle his mother when she went to prepare a meal.

The pine bark beetles resided in the freezer for about two weeks before took them out to take up to college where he would trade the excess with other students.  Lee said that by the time he got to Spearfish the pine bark beetles were revived and kicking as if nothing had happened. 

So, I found the following letter to the editor particularly interesting when I received it.  It contains stuff our group has been telling the local USFS over the last year, but Ms. Six states it so much clearer, and with considerably more authority.

— Jim Margadant

Letter to Editor

Monday, December 14, 2009 8:00 am

I am a forest entomologist and have conducted research on bark beetles in western North America and in many parts of the world over the last 17 years. Over this period, it has been amazing to observe the changes that have occurred in the behavior of many beetles. For the mountain pine beetle that is affecting much of the west, these include earlier and longer flight (attack) periods, more rapid reproductive cycles, greater overwintering survival and an expansion of the insect’s range northward and eastward in Canada and into higher elevations across much of the west. These changes can be directly linked to warming temperatures, although, in some cases, changes in forest structure and composition due to past management practices have exacerbated the problem.In lodgepole pine, the severity and extent of outbreaks has increased by more than an order of magnitude over what has been observed historically. While “atypical” outbreaks have been ecologically and economically devastating in some areas such as British Columbia and Colorado, lodgepole pine forests will regenerate. However, the current outbreak in high elevation whitebark pine is likely to result in the actual or functional extinction of this species in many areas of the west and a drastic shift in the structure and function of subalpine ecosystems. Thinning will not be adequate to stem mortality except in some localized areas over the short term. Whitebark pine, for the most part, already grows in open stands. Yet this open structure has not inhibited beetles and many stands have already suffered 90-100 percent mortality. [Unfortunately this also will probably mean good-bye to the grizzly bear.  JM]
The only way to truly take care of a problem is to get to the root of its cause and not just attempt to cover or alleviate the symptoms. To address the problem in a meaningful and effective way, we need to address climate change.

Diana L. Six, Missoula

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