Coming soon, to a pine tree near you! He’s a tiny little feller, about the size of a grain of rice, but boy is he hungry. The Mountain Pine Beetle Dendroctonus ponderosae is a Rocky Mountain native and we had learned to live with occasional outbreaks. We are now in the middle of a full blown epidemic of beetles. Lots of the northwestern part of our state has so far been spared the catastrophic outbreaks of beetles seen in British Columbia and Colorado, or around Helena, but it doesn’t look like that will hold for much longer. Beetle infestation signs have begun to show up on the slopes around Missoula.
Amy Gannon says many trees on the Mount Jumbo saddle have pitch polka-dotting their trunks — a sign that they were trying to flush out the tiny beetles that bore into the tree. The trees still have green needles for now, but next year they’ll likely be covered with red needles and dead.
Driven by the climate change that some like to say is a hoax, beetle infestations have hit 22 million acres in British Columbia, “The pine beetle infestation is the first major climate change crisis in Canada,” Doug McArthur, a professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, told IPS. There are estimates that B.C. could loose 25% of it’s forests and that 80% of those dead trees won’t even be salvagable in ten years. In Colorado, beetle infestations have hit about 2 million acres of forest, doubling the amount of affected acreage in two years. Colorado is projecting that they will lose every lodgepole pine in the state in the next few years.
Those millions of acres of dead and dying pines are driving fire behavior that experts have never seen, even in Montana.
“We’re seeing fire behavior that surprised us,” said Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Supervisor Dave Meyers. “We’re having more severe burning fires, they’re larger, they start sooner, and they go longer. We usually don’t see crown fires in late September.”
We can expect to see a more than 200% increase in the acreage burned each year due to climate change and this simple little pest. All we need to stop the infestation is a simple, normal winter. Temperatures of -30 for several days, or -40 for about twelve hours is all it takes to kill the beetles in the trees. We used to get a good cold spell along about the end of December or early January and that kept the little devils mostly in check. But, that is no longer the case. NOAA is predicting a drier and warmer winter driven by a Pacific El Nino again this year, so Missoula can expect to begin to see the slopes of Mt. Jumbo turning a pretty shade of red-brown by early summer next year.
And here’s one that hadn’t occurred to me. Large-scale power outages can be expected in the next few years due to the beetle epidemic. The nation’s power grid is also under indirect attack by itsy bitsy pine beetles. The largest power outage in American history, in 2003, left 50 million people without electricity for two days and cost 11 lives. The outage was due to untrimmed trees coming into contact with power lines in Ohio. A whole bunch of major western power lines now run through dead and dying forests in the West.
“Most of the major transmission lines for the Front Range cross the Continental Divide,” said Cal Wettstein, commander of the U.S. Forest Service’s Bark Beetle Incident Management Team. “There are three or four big, main lines and the majority of them go through some kind of beetle kill, so that’s the big concern.”
Emergency plans are now underway to allow power companies to clear large swaths of national forest land to avert failures due to beetle-killed trees. Just when you think you have this whole global warming thing figured out, nature throws you a curve ball.