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Pine beetle epidemic sweeps across Black Hills, NE Wyoming

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Approximately 400,000 acres of the Black Hills National Forest (BHNF) are currently infested with mountain pine beetles, and Deputy Forest Supervisor for the BHNF Dennis Jaeger says there are 250,000 acres of high-risk stands where small pockets of beetles are expected.
    “The mountain pine beetle is native to the Black Hills,” says Jaeger. “The last epidemic was in the mid-‘70s, so this is a recurring event.”
Influencing an epidemic
    Five mountain pine beetle epidemics have hit the Black Hills National Forest in the 1900s, with the first at the beginning of the century, and Jaeger says there are a number of factors that affect the beetle epidemic.
    The current epidemic started in 1997 and 1998, when pockets of pine beetle populations reached epidemic proportion.
    “When you get thick, dense stands, the brew populations take off,” he explains. “There is research that says if you have cold winters they will reduce the populations, but you have to get a one- to two-week sub-zero cold snap in the early fall or late spring to have an effect.”
    Drought, more than mild winters, has affected the spread of the beetle populations, says Jaeger, who notes that the severe drought between 2000 and 2007 made it more difficult for trees to fend off the bugs.
    “When we got into the wetter years, we thought numbers should start going down, but in the last two years the number of acres has increased,” Jaeger mentions. “That is why we are rolling out this new project.”
Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project
    “The intent of the Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project (MPBRP) is to provide more flexibility, because the pine beetle is spreading into new areas,” explains Jaeger. “It will allow us to take action using a variety of techniques.”
    Using the authority of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, Jaeger says the BHNF will utilize an adaptive management approach, which allows the use of the tool best suited to control pine beetle populations in each area.
    “We’ll find out what happens on a piece of ground and pull from our tool bag to address the situation,” he says.
    For the project, BHNF released scoping documents and held public meetings to hear comments and concerns in the Fall 2011.
    “We had a good turn out and received 400 written comments based on the scoping document,” says Jaeger, noting that comments ranged from “let nature take its course” to “do more.”
    “We had the full range of comments, but the majority said our proposed actions were good and that we, should do more,” he adds.
    The original scoping document from last fall encompassed 242,000 acres, which has been increased to 250,000 acres based on public comments.
Controlling beetle
    There are a number of techniques that will be available to control beetle populations, including cut-and-chunk, cut-and-chip, commercial timber sales and spraying.
    “Cut-and-chunk takes individual trees that have been affected,” Jaeger explains. “If we can get that fresh hit tree and cut it into two-foot sections, the inner layer dries out and kills the larvae so they don’t mature and infect other trees.”
    The cut-and-chunk me-thod is labor intensive and expensive, but Jaeger says it is effective, noting, “If we can get one tree down, we may save three to five others.”
     Commercial timber sales are also used to try to get ahead of the beetle populations. If commercial operations can thin dense stands of Ponderosa pine, it would help BHNF say ahead of beetle infestations.
    “We are also spraying trees in our campgrounds to maintain them, and we have some legacy trees that we have identified and sprayed,” he says, “but spraying is expensive and we have to do it every year.”
    “The bugs don’t know land boundaries, and they don’t just stay on Forest Service land. The big thing that we are working with public and private landowners on is education,” Jaeger notes.
    Programs to help landowners learn what a bug-hit tree looks like as well as how to take action on private land to keep the spread intact is a big effort of BHNF.
    “Crook and Weston counties are working with us, and we have county crews working on federal lands thorough a participating agreement,” he says. “These efforts show everyone coming together to get after this the best we can.”
    Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

Fears of fire season
    “This year, we’ve had a March fire season start,” says Black Hills National Forest Deputy Forest Supervisor Dennis Jaeger, noting that, despite a weekend of rain on April 14 and 15, a 500-acre fire was burning two weeks earlier.
    “My concern right now is the fuel loading and working around communities to try to get stands thinned down,” he adds.
    Jaeger explains that, though trees may still be green and standing, if they are infected with the mountain pine beetle they are basically dead and the needles will start to turn red in July and August.
    “Once they turn red, there isn’t any commercial value in the lumber,” he says. “One of the big things that helps is we still have a viable timber industry in the Black Hills, and using our commercial timber program we can treat 20,000 acres per year, but we have to get the trees out before they turn red.”
    After the needles turn red, fire danger increases dramatically.
    “If we don’t get a fire, the Ponderosa pine will start breaking off in the next two to five years, and that gives a heavy fuel load on the floor of the forest,” explains Jaeger. “Then, we start seeing regeneration, so we have the possibility of a very hot ground fire coming through – that affects soil composition and future regeneration.”
    “If we can keep the fire moving, that’s one thing, but if there is a lot of down fuels, it burns hotter, and the red needles burn faster,” Jaeger adds. “From a fuel loading standpoint, the biggest thing that private landowners can help with is by participating in the Fire Wise programs.”

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