Mitton believes the beetle's adaptation to warmer temperatures helps to explain why the damage is so widespread. "Bark beetles have been going through epidemics since they arose 34 million years ago," he says, "but we've never seen one like this. It's much more synchronous, much hotter than any before. In Colorado, they used to go up to 9,000 feet; now it's 11,000 feet. And they're invading forests that haven't seen bark beetles ever, not since the glaciers receded. They're now in naive forests that are not well defended."

The Mitton-Ferrenberg paper has been greeted with skepticism from some beetle experts — and with shrugs by others. In internal e-mails, some Forest Service employees have questioned the pair's research methods and the limited scope of the data. Mitton, who has now expanded the study to four sites, calls the carping "horseshit."

"Most of what the Forest Service puts out is only reviewed by the people down the hallway," he says. "If I used their methods, I would never have seen any of this."

Others point out that adaptation to climate change, including an accelerated reproduction cycle, has already been detected in numerous other species, including the spruce beetle. In light of that record, Ferrenberg says, he was surprised by the "blowback" the paper has received in some quarters. "There are hundreds, if not thousands, of insects that have been documented to change their reproductive times or locations in response to a warming climate," he says, "yet there's just some barrier for professional foresters to admit that this is possible."

"The jury's still out from our entomologists," says Cal Wettstein, the incident commander for Rocky Mountain bark-beetle issues at the Forest Service, which is battling the epidemic in much the same way as it responds to a large fire. "Time will tell, on the climate change question. But it's an interesting aspect, and it may explain why the beetles have moved so fast."

Wettstein and other forest agency officials say that the epidemic's severity can be traced to several factors — some natural, some having to do with decades of forest-management decisions that are now being sharply criticized.

"This may be the largest epidemic we've experienced, but it's far from our first," says Sky Stephens, entomologist for the Colorado State Forest Service. "We had a lot of forests of uniform age, very limited forest-management activities, and we've spent a lot of time suppressing fire. All of this allowed a very large percentage of Colorado's pine forests to enter their most susceptible life phase at the same time. And then we had a significant period of drought."

Beetles thrive in drought years. Pines respond to beetle attacks by oozing resin, "pitching out" the invaders, but a lack of water weakens that defense process. Well-watered trees have been known to drive out thousands of beetles; a drought-plagued tree can succumb to a handful. If the beetles manage to set up house in the tree bark, they infect the tree with a blue-stain fungus that serves to nourish their young while strangling the tree's hydrology and eventually killing it.

But while there seems to be a general consensus among agencies about the causes of the epidemic — a perfect storm of drought, mild weather, impassive forestry policies, millions of acres of mature lodgepole stands — there is no similar agreement about what should be done to prevent future kills on such a massive scale. The Forest Service is devoting much of its resources to what amounts to a tree-removal service, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to clear dead stands that might topple on roads, trails, power lines or campers. Conservation groups are undertaking heroic efforts to save imperiled, high-altitude pines that serve a critical role in sustaining other mountain wildlife, trees that have survived for centuries in harsh conditions — but could be wiped out by the beetle in a matter of months.

The staggering toll of the infestation has forestry associations and timber interests clamoring for relief and denouncing the federal government's "failed policies." Local and state officials are nervously eyeing vast stands of dead, dry wood and worrying not just about the inevitable wildfires, but the threats to watersheds, air quality and public health those fires might bring. At the same time, some scientists are openly skeptical of the most alarming claims concerning the epidemic's impact and contend that a broad-based program to remove trees will only make things worse.

If nothing else, Mitton muses, the astonishing voracity of the latest beetle outbreak is confronting global-warming naysayers with a dramatic example of the phenomenon at work. "This beetle is just one of many species that have responded to climate change," he says. "A butterfly coming out early or moving north is not something people notice. Dead trees, they notice."

******

One of the most basic challenges of the beetle epidemic is figuring out just how many dead trees it's left in its wake, and what that means to the future health of western forests. Given the vast area involved — and the contentious politics of natural-resource management — the answers aren't as simple as they might appear.

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21 comments
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Leola

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Henderson
Henderson

Please read the article in full. Your comment is off the mark

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Leola

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Gielsj
Gielsj

This isn't the only study on these, and it has been shown that winters are not cold enough to kill off these bugs

Anthony Beretta
Anthony Beretta

Unless the tree is dead that it can freeze easily. I've seen DEAD wood freeze yearly in the mountains of northern new mexico. So that's why I don't think temperature has a lot to do with this problem.

Bobbert
Bobbert

Nice fixation, Ranger. Lack of forest diversity? Somewhat. Lack of water? Definitely. Longer warm season? Yes. That's what I took from the experts. And experts in Entomology/Forestry are going to be as excited about their subject going up in a mainstream paper as you suggest I am about it. So, I'm not sure which of the indifferent, "who cares" comments you see coming from an expert, or anyone with a degree in this stuff.

Swampfoxcws
Swampfoxcws

So....errr...I suppose the fact that we have not allowed a fire-dependent forest to burn for a hundred years had nothing to do with it? And this climate change thing - what is the climate supposed to be doing? Staying the same? Getting colder? What? We are generally coming out of an ice age, so it is not astounding to me that the climate is getting warmer. Al Gore is making a lot of money on this deal, with his carbon footprint of a thousand city people!

Bob
Bob

Holy long-winded crapology.

Bobbert
Bobbert

Grower: I am absolutely positive that there are other researchers looking for generations of the insects of their choice. I don't doubt that every insect is a major concern of yours as a grower. However, its BS suggesting there is no story (as Phd and others suggested) in the fact that pine beetles have been observed flying for the FIRST time in the Colorado high country in May during a drought which has weakened tree defenses, setting this whole situation up as a potential epidemic...that's a story I am glad is being reported. Regardless of what the other insects are up to. Westword runs gossip pieces and bullshit blogs constantly and no one comments. But here we get a long story that hasn't been regurgitated a billion times, and people are dissing the fact that it was even reported because a small part of the story doesn't jive with their opinion on the narrowest little subject that they know anything about. I stand by my fucking point.

Ranger
Ranger

Single season multi generations during an upswing in warm winters gets you excited? Read closely, and I see your comment about jerking off - that polishes your stance. Plain, simple, concise and without argument - it’s lack of forest diversity. Now you can once again start your multi seasonal pseudo physical and biased masturbation and please stop writing comments where you have no expertise or degree. Grower, thank you.

JB
JB

I remember as a kid seeing all the beetle kill trees that were cut down, sprayed, and wrapped in plastic to control their spreading. You could see them on the way up the canyon to Central city on the mountainsides. If this has stopped, the question should be WHY??????

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Oliver Philip

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Grower
Grower

Ask any farmer and they will agree warm winters increase the yearly chances for multi generations of insects. Are you on the peer review for this article? They plan for this. I agree this is common knowledge. Further, if I planted the same corp every year during an increase of annual multi generation, or single generation, of damaging insects I would be out of business. The lack of forest diversity is the cause and the effect. Climate fluctuations ehances lack of forethought in forest management - the real cause. Examing different type of insects and multi generations of seasonal hatching proves that pine beetles are not exclusive and climate fluctuation increases are in fact common knowledge. Defending someone's thesis, in this case, proves your lack of understanding the "whole fucking point."

James Reynolds
James Reynolds

Dead fuel accumulating for the past 15+ years. Fires take off like hot cakes. You do the science.

Bobbert
Bobbert

Phd: Early beetle flights resulting in 2 generations per year, instead of 1 is not common knowledge. In fact, it goes against everything we know and accept about the pine beetle. The fact that they can lure a pine beetle with pheromones in May is proof enough. Larvae cannot be lured through the air by pheromones, and pine beetle eggs will not spontaneously grow wings in "cold winter" to be drawn to a trap. The whole fucking point is that weather changes are now allowing 2 generations per year instead of 1. You want to see this test run during the egg stage? Do you see insects cruising around when the weather is cold? Do you really think that beetles trapped using pheromones in May are less developed than the one they happened upon on Niwot Ridge in May? And what would running the experiment with "other beetle types" look like and what would it have to do with proving or disproving the fact that pine beetles are squeezing out 2 generations where they used to make 1?

Nroush
Nroush

Good article about the pine beetle devestation, however the title is misleading. The subtitle additionally says why the forests ate burning up, like there is a correlation between the beetle and all of the current fires. There is only a few sentences that talk about the fires and it never mentions a correlation between the two problems. False advertisement!

Phd
Phd

The article is an example of lacking journalism filled with a lack of citations and filled with conjecture. Worse, the article is stale information. The beetle kill is common knowledge and the simple method of "They set up lures loaded with pheromones to invite beetles to establish broods in those trees." Then stating warm winter sampling represents the first peer-reviewed report of the insect achieving two generations in a single summer. Show this result without luring beetles with pheromones. Then try the same experiment with pine bettles during a cold winter. And finally try the experiment with other beetle types.

Edmund
Edmund

Yea, you're right. He should have written it as "The top ten things you didn't know about pine beetles!" Or maybe 5 in your case.

 
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