Just when science thinks it has figured out the method and madness of nature, it gets thrown for the proverbial loop. And one of nature’s latest tricks — perhaps, one of its most devious — is occurring right now all across Colorado and the West.
A tiny insect as small as a third of an inch is eating its way through several millions – a handful of generations – of Lodgepole Pines, a variety of pine that covers much of the country’s western mountains.
The villain, in this case, is the Mountain Pine Beetle. It is a lilliputian, but voracious, insect that over the last five to six years has eaten a path across many of the jagged peaks and deepest valleys in the West and Canada.
The beetle’s attack began quietly enough. But, like a wildfire, it simply grew out of control and into a singular force that has assumed an utterly indifferent and unpredictable life of its own.
“What happens is the pine beetle will find a stressed tree,” says Colorado State University forester Tamla Blunt. If the tree proves to be a good host, and it usually is, then, “it’s a party.”
The beetle is joined by others, and generations follow as they methodically eat their way across a swath of forest, occupying and destroying every Lodgepole Pine as far as the eye can see.
The latest beetle infestation has anchored its way into a number of Colorado high country counties, including Route, Eagle, Summit, Jackson, Boulder, Clear Creek and Larimer.
The beetle’s death march has scorched vast portions of private and public lands across the West and beyond, says Howard Hallman, president of Forest Health Task Force. And while the pine beetle also infests other high country timber, including the white and sugar pines, it has so far not spread in significant numbers beyond the Lodgepole Pine.
The devastation from the beetle has left state and federal forestry officials both frustrated and handcuffed.
“It’s far beyond our capacity to address the outbreak,” said one U.S. Forest official who asked his name not be used. “When it gets to this point, everyone knows it’s going to run its course.”
Regrettably, he says, no one can predict how long that might be.
Huge tracts of forest stretching well into the Northwest across Canada and into Alaska have been ravaged by the pine beetle. A cursory glance at the mountainscape west of Denver attests to this little parasite’s hunger for food. “All you have to do is drive up I-70 and look,” Blunt says. “It’s just awful.”
While the beetle can be eradicated using chemical sprays, the cost to spray even a small portion of the tiny insect’s path of destruction on state or federal lands is prohibitive. The only thing officials can do is monitor the outbreak and wait for the beetles “to eat their way out of house and home.” Sooner or later, the beetle “is going to run out of food allowing nature to rebalance things.”
As the beetle eats its way across the West – standing dead and fallen pines mark its path – officials can only hope for a break in the dry weather patterns of the last several seasons. Without a significant snowpack or a wet warm weather season, the chance for uncontrollable forest fires above 7,000 feet remains high. Forest officials have already banned fires in across huge tracts of state land.
And while the verdict remains out on the role climate change might be playing in this equation, a growing number of scientists think there is an indisputable link. They say that mountain winters are staying too warm to freeze the insect out. But there is little argument about the role drought might be playing in this cycle.
“When you have warm weather and drought, there’s not as much moisture and water for trees,” Hallman says.
Moisture helps a tree generate resin, which can repel the pine beetle. Water also works like “a good vitamin,” says the veteran tree expert. “If you don’t eat right, you’re more likely to get sick.”
And right now, a good portion of the country’s Lodgepole Pine population is more than a little moisture deprived and under the weather.
While Colorado forests have suffered greatly from the pine beetle, it has escaped the kind of devastation other states are now experiencing. But the same dry conditions that now exist in Colorado also exist across the West. And the weakened or dead Lodgepole Pine population poses fire danger as high or higher in a number of other states.
“They’ll just go up in the blink of an eye,” Blunt says, comparing the dead timber to an unlimited supply of kindling. “A lighting strike can be catastrophic. We really don’t need that.”
Ironically, fire is the most effective way for nature to restore and replenish the lost forests so far claimed by the beetle.
“The Lodgepole Pines don’t germinate on their own,” Blunt says.
The cones require the high temperatures generated by fire to open and release the seeds that will ensure a new generation of growth.
Fully grown, the Lodgepole Pine, which early Indians used for teepees, can reach a height of 130 feet. In addition to using the tree to stabilize their teepees, Indians used its inner bark as a food source and its sap for medicine.
The lifespan of a Lodgepole Pine can be as long as 150 years. Forest officials can only hope that the current pine beetle infestation quickly runs its course so that a new growth cycle can begin. Unfortunately, there is no indication that this current infestation is on the wane in Colorado or anywhere else.
As regrettable as this current outbreak is, forest officials understand it is not the last, only the latest. It is simply the way nature works, on a timeline that is often too slow to allow one generation to fully appreciate what the next will simply take for granted.