Wyoming forestry legislative update includes fire report, bark beetle study
Afton – State Forester Bill Crapser reported to the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources committee on Sept. 27 about this year’s fire season and the impact of bark beetles on forest health.
“This is our second largest and second most expensive fire season since I’ve been with the Forest Service,” said Crapser. “It was a relatively short, but very intense, fire season this year.”
In comparison to last summer, a number of dry lightning fires occurred across the state this year.
“August was very dry, with extreme conditions through the central and eastern part of the state,” added Crapser.
Of fires in which the State Forestry Division was involved, there were seven emergency fire suppression counts totaling nearly 50,000 acres, as well as 15 larger fires.
“Total acres this summer, counting the federal and county fires, were between 250,000 and 300,000 acres,” emphasized Crapser.
Crapser also detailed use of the Wyoming State Helitack program. Helitack is described by the Forestry Division as a fire crew that utilizes an initial attack, exclusive use helicopter for fire suppression in Wyoming. The Helitack crew has been in place since 2004 and goes through extensive training each year.
“It has been a very successful program. We are in our first year of a contract with Sky Aviation from Worland,” said Crapser. “This year we flew 38 missions and about 180 hours.”
“This is by far the most missions we have had with the Helitack in any summer,” added Crapser. “It is also the second highest number of hours, only exceeded by 2006.”
This year, fire crews also supported flood efforts across the state, according to Crapser, as well as out-of-state fires in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.
“During August, we had almost our entire staff supporting fire operations,” said Crapser.
There were two injuries this year resulting from fire fighting, both of which have recovered.
For challenges encountered related to fires, Crapser mentions that jurisdiction of fires, as well as resource distribution, is difficult.
“It become harder and harder for us to get to resources when Texas and the southwest is on fire,” said Crapser. “The Forest Service also cancelled one of their large air tanker contracts for safety reasons. Ten years ago there were 32 heavy air tankers in the United States under contract with the federal government. Today there are only 11, so it’s hard to get access to that resource.”
“We had an issue this year with communication,” said Crapser. “We are having a really hard time keeping our inmate crew staffed, as well.”
Because of the training, as well as the requirements for fire crew, Crapser mentioned that it is problematic, but it is necessary to be thoughtful about the men selected for the crew so they can accomplish their goals.
Crapser also addressed forest health in his report to the Joint Ag Committee, particularly the affects of the bark beetle.
“We are still seeing bark beetle issues across the state,” said Crapser. “We haven’t seen a reduction this year in the number of new acres infected, but we have seen a change in areas of infestation.”
Crapser notes the area of increased activity in the Black Hills, moving from Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota.
“We are focusing a lot of our efforts on landowner assistance, trying to get them to work on the beetle issue,” said Crapser.
A report from Greg Kerr, Director of Office of Water Programs, and Brent Ewers, a professor at UW, also detailed the effect of the bark beetle on Wyoming forests, as well as forests across the nation.
Ewers described that the bark beetle carries the blue stain fungus, which essentially stops water transport in trees.
“We have hydrological consequences before the trees turn red,” said Ewers. “This isn’t just a mountain pine beetle issue; the epidemic is probably worse for spruce and fir.”
Ewers continued, explaining the hydrological consequences of the bark beetle will be regional rather than simply local. To emphasize the affects that the bark beetle has on water, Ewers showed data from numerous studies conducted in both Wyoming and the region.
“The first piece of data is about the change in canopy transpiration,” said Ewers. “We have lots of data about how trees should respond to the atmosphere, and within a month you can see water loss from those trees is at half the rate from those that haven’t been hit.”
Ewers emphasized that, visually, the trees cannot be identified as attacked by bark beetles until much later, but their transpiration, or water loss, rates are much lower. Ultimately, hydrologic impacts are occurring very early in bark beetle infestations.
“Trees essentially go into massive drought stress and act as though the soil is really dry when they are infested,” explained Ewers. “These trees will die, but we can’t tell yet because they are still green.”
Additionally, the soil moisture values before and after beetle infection show a clear increase, according to Ewers’s data, meaning trees are taking in less water.
“There is almost a doubling of nitrogen coming off of infested versus un-infested trees, and un-infested soils have about one third less nitrogen,” said Ewers. “Our prediction would be that nitrogen should be more available in streams and that has a lot of implications.”
“We should be able to tackle the bark beetle problem now that we know what it is doing,” explained Ewers.
“However, the Colorado issue is causing a lot of head-scratching,” added Ewers. “There is statistically no increase in stream flow. At the stand scale we currently see, we clearly have more water available and there is more snow. The question is, why are we not getting more water in streams?”
One reason for this discrepancy described by Ewers is the potential of the impacts to be undetectable due to the accuracy of equipment.
“A 20 percent change in stream flow is necessary for it to be detectable by our stream gauges,” said Ewers. “If the beetles are doing an average of only 15 percent increase, you wouldn’t see it.”
He also emphasized, however, that it is necessary to look beyond individual watersheds to get a complete picture, but looking at larger areas compounds the standard error, based on the abilities of the instruments used. Some of that error can be absorbed by taking multiple approaches to collecting data, and when multiple measurements agree, Ewers says the results are likely significant.
Earlier research done in British Columbia in Canada based on their bark beetle infestation did not include the impacts on water.
“No one is collecting data about water,” said Ewers, which only makes their research more difficult.
Without background data or trend data based on older infestations, Ewers says that establishing trends is harder. The infected trees in Colorado date back to the early 2000s while those trees studied in the Medicine Bow National Forest only have data back to 2008.
Ewers mentioned that research to address the issues of the impact of bark beetles on forests will continue.
Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.