North Routt Forest officials have confirmed that spruce beetles are flying out of broken areas of the Routt National Forest, but it is too early to tell how many standing trees have been infected.
The insect has lived in dead spruce trees that were killed by from a 1997 windstorm that knocked over or uprooted thousands of acres of timber in the Routt National Forest northwest of Steamboat Springs.
Now, the well-fed spruce beetles are coming out of the downed trees to feed on, and eventually kill, live timber.
Since 1998, U.S Forest Service officials have checked 10 pheromone funnel traps scattered throughout the Routt Forest, to try to get an idea of when the beetles will be leaving the Blowdown. The pheromone used is intended to attract the insects into the trap.
Last year, two traps caught a small amount of beetles.
"This summer we're catching a few beetles pretty much everywhere," Forest Service beetle team leader Andy Cadenhead said.
That means the bugs are on the move.
Traps near Floyd Peak, about five miles south of Clark, and the Sawmill campground, in the Bears Ears Ranger District north of Hayden, collected several hundred beetles, he said.
However, forest officials don't know for sure how many beetles have flown into live trees.
"We're not able to figure that out right now. What we hope to get out of the traps, as far as information, is what time of year they are flying and a very gross number of how many beetles are out there," Cadenhead said.
Right now, all the Forest Service knows is that the beetles are coming out and there are plenty of them, he said.
In August, the insects will have settled into trees for the winter. Forest Service crews will then go into the forest and try to get a better count.
This year's beetle flight marks the beginning of what could be a catastrophic change in the appearance of the forest with thousands of trees being killed by the insects.
It takes 1,000 pairs of beetles to kill one spruce tree. From that one tree, enough beetles will hatch to kill four other trees, Cadenhead said. That chain of exponential population growth will continue until there are no more spruce trees for the beetles to fly into or a cold snap of 35 below zero kills the insects.
By next summer, the first trees killed by the beetles will be fairly visible, but the impact won't be that devastating at first.
"Certainly, in five years we'll see whole tree stands that will be hit," Cadenhead said.
Routt Forest officials are looking at the Dixie National Forest in Utah to get an idea of what could happen. That area is on its seventh year of a large spruce beetle epidemic which has killed 20,000 acres of trees.
"We don't see any reason why that scale of event won't happen here," Cadenhead said.
However, 80 to 90 percent of the Dixie National Forest is spruce trees, causing the loss to be more visible. In the Routt National Forest, 50 percent of the trees are spruce, so whole forests probably won't be destroyed in some areas.
Also, some tree stands will be protected from the beetles.
Trees in scenic corridors near Buffalo and Rabbit Ears passes, the ski area and popular campgrounds will be sprayed with a pesticide to prevent an infestation.
The Forest Service also is embarking on an informational program to inform people of the change the forest will make in the next few years.
"We're really focusing on the local people so there will be no surprises," Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said.
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