Pines losing beetle battle

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— Lodgepole pine trees around the Steamboat Lake and Hahn's Peak area have turned a dry red this past week, a clear sign of mountain pine beetle infestation.

Terry Wattles, district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, said the beetles have been infesting trees over the past few years. But this year, it looks like the beetles are starting to cover more ground.

"We're on the verge of just going crazy," Wattles said. "It's a lot more visible now. You can drive up there and see lots more pockets of red trees."

Last year, the beetles killed dozens of trees, Wattles said. This year, they have killed hundreds. And that number is only expected to rise.

Mountain pine beetles are different from spruce beetles, which have infested blowdown areas across Routt County. Mountain pine beetles are small bugs that, as adults, lay their eggs under the bark of lodgepole pines, introducing a blue-stain fungi at the same time.

Once the eggs hatch, and the larvae feed on parts of the tree that carry water and food between the roots and leaves. The larval feeding and the fungi are deadly to the tree, sometimes killing it within a month.

The following spring, the beetles mature and fly off, infecting several more trees.

For every tree that is infested this year, Wattles said that two to three others most likely will be infested next year. And that's a conservative estimate.

"So if somebody has a pocket of five (infested trees), they can probably expect between 10 and 15 next year," he said. "Or their neighbors can."

Mountain pine beetles are native to the area with the last serious infestation taking place in the late 1970s, Wattles said. Colorado's Front Range has had recent infestations that have killed hundreds of Ponderosa pines.

The beetles have a better chance of infesting trees during drought, one reason they may be doing so well now, Wattles said.

"The timber stand is ripe for the bugs to go through it," he said. "I'm afraid it's going to go through it if we don't get Mother Nature to help us somewhere."

An extremely cold early fall or late spring, in which temperatures are below 30 degrees for days at a time, could keep the beetle populations in check, Wattles said.

Other methods to control beetle populations include:

n spraying high value trees with chemicals such a carbaryl, commonly called Sevin, and ermethrin, commonly called Astro, before they are infested;

n cutting down and getting rid of infested trees; and

n disposing of the cut trees through chipping, burning or hauling them off.

Park managers at Steamboat Lake State Park are looking at methods of controlling the beetles, Wattles said. Neither of the managers involved could be reached for comment.

The beetles have been present around Steamboat Lake for the past 10 years, Wattles said, but managers have started to consider control measures during the past few years.

Initially, the infestation was considered a natural process, so no steps to combat the beetles were taken. But as the infestation grew, managers changed their minds, Wattles said.

"Now they've gotten into the idea that if they don't do anything, there aren't going to be too many more lodgepole pine trees in the area," he said. "And they don't like the idea of that."

Another impact of the infestation is that more dead trees could result in more dry, burnable fuels, increasing fire danger.

Mountain pine beetles aren't limited to woods around Steamboat Lake and Hahn's Peak. There have also been some pockets of infested trees in downtown Steamboat Springs, Wattles said, such as the area along Angler's Drive.

For many homeowners, the infestations cause huge heartache because the beetles go after the larger, mature trees that people prize, Routt County Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow said.

"It's the big, beautiful lodgepoles that really are priceless in a lifetime that are at risk," Mucklow said.

Mucklow said the extension office can help homeowners identify infestations, determine what sort of bark beetle is damaging the trees and give options for control.

Wattles said that the state forest service CAN also offer assistance. But, he said that it's too late for residents to save trees that have already been hit this year.

At least residents can take some comfort in knowing that the beetles are part of a natural cycle.

"It's Mother Nature's way of telling us we didn't do a very good job of managing our forests," he said. "There are too many old (trees) and not enough young ones, so she's harvesting our trees for us."

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203 or email sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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