Beetle epidemic nears 2 million acres

Routt County is Colorado's new ground zero for mountain pine beetle

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On the 'Net

- Additional mountain pine beetle information can be found at the U.S. Forest Service Web site.

- To read the Steamboat Pilot & Today's award-winning, five-part series on the beetle epidemic, visit The Last Stand.

By the numbers

Acres impacted by mountain pine beetle in Routt and surrounding counties

County 2008 1996-2008

Eagle 75,680 159,860

Garfield 5,210 7,160

Grand 208,210 552,570

Jackson 234,620 353,800

Moffat 9,700 11,100

Rio Blanco 18,000 25,130

Routt 245,290 310,520

— The mountain pine beetle killed more trees in Routt County than anywhere else in Colorado in recent years, the results of annual aerial surveys show.

Of the 1.16 million impacted acres across the state, 245,000 of them are in Routt County, according to the aerial research conducted in 2008 by the U.S. and Colorado State forest services.

Jackson County is a close second with 234,620 impacted acres. Statewide, the surveys revealed 400,000 acres where mountain pine beetle had not been previously recorded in recent years.

Although there are 1.16 million impacted acres still existing in Colorado, the 2008 aerial survey results bring the cumulative number of acres in Colorado impacted by the current mountain pine beetle epidemic to 1.9 million.

"There's some sense that the worst is over. My thoughts on that would be that, sure, maybe we're going to see a declining number of acres from here on out. But my observations are that, for some people, their problems are just beginning," said John Twitchell, a Steamboat Springs-based forester with the Colorado Forest Service. "In the sense of dealing with dead and dying trees, that's going to continue for years to come."

Colorado's pine forests - along with those throughout the Rocky Mountain West - are in the grip of an unprecedented mountain pine beetle epidemic that began in about 1996. The survey also showed concerning levels of spruce beetle activity and aspen decline.

"The aerial survey gives our managers a landscape view of areas of concern where we can focus projects and research," Rick Cables, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region, said in a news release. "Epidemics that affect the forest on a landscape level, like the mountain pine beetle, require a strong and coordinated effort among all of those impacted by this infestation."

Primary concerns, Twitchell said, are the wildfire hazards presented by so many dead and dry trees, and the danger of falling trees.

"It's happening almost immediately that trees are starting to fall," said Twitchell, adding that residents and visitors "shouldn't be surprised" to see more trail and campground closures in 2009 as crews work to clear the most hazardous dead pines.

Although the current epidemic predominantly is in lodgepole pines west of the Continental Divide in Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Routt and Summit counties, Front Range counties such as Boulder, Clear Creek, Gilpin and Larimer also are beginning to see epidemic-level beetle populations in high-elevation lodgepoles. To a lesser degree, mountain pine beetles also are attacking and killing ponderosa, limber and bristlecone pines.

The 2008 aerial survey also revealed aspen decline on 542,000 acres statewide. While a concern, Twitchell said the figure might sound more dramatic than it actually is. Although pine trees visibly hit by the mountain pine beetle are doomed, aspen trees can recover from low to moderate levels of decline. Also, Twitchell said that based on his observations locally, aspen decline has been coupled with strong regeneration.

"I'd be more discouraged if I didn't see a lot of regeneration," said Twitchell, who also noted that aspens are expected to take over much of the space being vacated by lodgepole pines. "That's a good thing. Young aspen grows fast."

Spruce beetles - which killed much of the older spruce population in Routt and Jackson counties from 2001 to 2004 - were detected on 64,000 acres in 2008, mostly in the southwest corner of the state.

- To reach Brandon Gee, call 871-4210 or e-mail bgee@steamboatpilot.com

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