"We know what we need to do to restore these species," says Tomback, whose foundation is partnering with larger environmental groups to raise awareness of the threat. "It's painstaking, and it may take more than one generation to do. But without them, the forests become a lot more homogenous. It will impoverish us, from a biodiversity perspective. And very little work has been done on the impact on wildlife of this widespread pine-beetle kill."

Although a great deal of energy and planning is now going into efforts to restore habitat and revitalize forests, officials acknowledge that their ability to manage the epidemic is limited. Human engineering — what Tomback calls our ability to "alter the natural dynamics" — certainly contributed to the high toll of the beetle outbreak, from fire-suppression policies to the central role of increased greenhouse gas emissions in driving climate change. But our ability to engineer our way out of the problem is less clear.

Some experts believe that the epidemic, like a long period of drought and fire, essentially has to run its course and burn out. Even referring to the outbreak as an "epidemic" or an "invasion" is misleading, they argue, since the beetle is a native species that's been munching away at pine trees since the dawn of the forests; one fossilized specimen of a precursor of the mountain pine beetle found in Boulder County dates back to between 15 and 30 million years. "The bark beetle never really goes away," says Mitton, who's continued to find muted but persistent beetle activity in ponderosa pines on Sugarloaf Mountain outside Boulder, 35 years after the last big beetle kill swept through the area.

CU researchers Jeff Mitton (left) and Scott Ferrenberg observed the beetles achieving two generations a summer. Slide show: Meet the beetles: How Colorado's forests are bugging out
Mark Manger
CU researchers Jeff Mitton (left) and Scott Ferrenberg observed the beetles achieving two generations a summer. Slide show: Meet the beetles: How Colorado's forests are bugging out
Larvae and adult beetles at work. Slide show: Meet the beetles: How Colorado's forests are bugging out
Jeff Mitton
Larvae and adult beetles at work. Slide show: Meet the beetles: How Colorado's forests are bugging out

Details

Yet forest agency officials are determined to avoid repeating the same devastating trajectory in the future. It's unlikely that the High Five pines will rebound within a generation or two. But lodgepoles are much more resilient; the younger trees spared by the beetles are expected to fare well. And that presents the prospect of the same cycle starting all over again, with dense and uniform stands of trees, all roughly the same age, vulnerable to massive beetle attacks.

"The most important factor in this epidemic is the condition our forests are in," says entomologist Stephens. "We might want to re-evaluate where we stand on things like timber harvest, fire suppression and forest management — and recognize that multiple-use policies on public lands are probably the best."

There's no "blanket approach" that will work everywhere, Stephens adds. For example, ponderosa pines can benefit from regular thinning procedures, but lodgepoles have shallower root systems — too much thinning can leave the remaining trees vulnerable to being knocked over in windstorms.

Ferrenberg believes that future forest management should focus more on identifying trees that have higher resin flow (and more resistance to the beetles) and encouraging their propagation. "If you come up with a management plan that involves cutting trees or prescribed burns, you have to figure out how to get it into some of the most rugged places in the world — and you're going to have to accept unexpected outcomes," he says, referring to the threat of prescribed burns going wild. "We need to start managing early. It's going to be more time-intensive management, but it's something we need to do."

Mitton sees Colorado's forests adapting to changing conditions, just like the beetles. The severely thinned lodgepole stands present an opportunity for aspen, which have extensive root systems and tend to colonize avalanche, burn and beetle sites. Aspen appear to be on the rebound across the state, after prolonged drought and a condition known as Sudden Aspen Decline that claimed large groves a few years ago, and the tree may well be on the verge of a decades-long proliferation in the state not seen in centuries.

"The forests are going to look more like what they were when the European settlers came to Colorado," Mitton says. "That's not an awful thing. Once the aspen are doing well, the lodgepole will come back and shade them out — and there we go again."

Aspen forests are rich in biodiversity. They let in more light, generating a lusher understory than conifers, and are important to a range of wildlife, including beaver and birds of prey. And as Mitton and other ardent nature photographers know, they offer something the evergreen and ever-beleaguered conifers can't provide.

"Is there a silver lining to this epidemic?" Mitton asks. "My thought is, aspen are pretty in the fall."

Slide show: Meet the beetles: How Colorado's forests are bugging out

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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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Now   Pow
Now Pow

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Leola
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.

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??????

Oliver Philip
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.

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.

 
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