Ongoing drought news great for beetles, bad for us

It's now official: In some areas of Colorado, 2012 was the driest year since 2000. A late dump of snow in December has failed to take portions of the Western Slope and the southern part of the state out of the "extreme drought" category. And if the weather doesn't take a dramatic turn to the wet this spring, expect more crop failures, wild fires -- and pine-beetle devastation across the state's forests.

A roundup of recent drought stories from across the state can be found at Coyote Gulch, in contrast to the trickle of articles about our most precious resource found elsewhere. The state climatologist says it's too early to predict what sort of spring storms might be in the offing, but it's clear that the snowfall that granted much of Colorado a white Christmas, however welcome, didn't bring the snowpack up to anything close to the "average" in our increasingly arid state. In the Arkansas River Valley basin, it's now hovering at around 63 percent of average.

But one prediction seems safe. Drought contributes not only to wildfires but to the massive pine beetle epidemic that's raged through the West for more than a decade, as detailed in last June's feature "The Beetle and the Damage Done." It's hardly the only factor involved -- warmer temperatures, the beetles' accelerated reproduction cycle, decades of fire suppression policies, and other forces have contributed to the problem -- but drought weakens the trees' ability to fight off beetle invasions by oozing resin. And that means that, while the epidemic has slowed somewhat because it's already devoured many of the lodgepole pines the beetles prefer, it doesn't require that many beetles to take down a drought-weakened host.

A healthier snowpack can help limit the beetle invasion, as well as reduce the fires that are altering the forests around the state. Forest officials are learning how to think long-term about the epidemic and its aftermath, planning for new forests that won't have quite the vulnerability of our current trees, but that's a solution decades in the making. For 2013, the best hope for a saner summer is to let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

From our archives: "The Beetle and the Damage Done."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast