The mountain pine beetle is perhaps the most infamous creepy-crawly in the Western United States. No larger than a grain of rice, the bug drills into trees and infects them with a blue fungus that makes them die of thirst. They’ve bored and left for dead millions of trees and affected 30 million acres in the Western U.S. and Canada since the late 1990s. But there’s no need to panic, says a new series of short films created in a collaboration between University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute and the U.S. Forest Service – the epidemic is still larger than at any time in recorded history, but both trees and humans are adapting in various ways.
The films, which focus on the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests in Wyoming and northern Colorado, aim to educate people about the beetles’ role in forest ecology and also to assuage public concern about the vast amount of mortality that’s resulted from these tree-killers.
“A lot of people have been feeling dismal about the bark beetle outbreak,” says Ruckelshaus communications coordinator Emilene Ostlind, a former High Country News editorial fellow who helped produce the series. “We want to show people there are opportunities to respond and deal with areas that have been affected; it’s not totally out of our hands. At the same time, we’re not going to go back to how forests were in 1980.” In other words, Western forests are changing – not keeling over for good.
Though reasons for the outbreaks are complex, climate change plays a role in recent pine beetle takeovers. Even though the bugs can survive 30-below temperatures as larvae by pumping out their own antifreeze, warmer winters allow them to thrive in greater numbers, reproduce more frequently, and prey on drought-weakened trees. But focusing on irreversible climate change, Ostlind says, would make our response to the piles of red-needled or fallen pines seem hopeless: “We have to find some grain of hopefulness and positivity in order to engage with, and try to address the problem.”
So where’s that hope? For one, stronger and more beetle-resilient young trees can grow in place of dead ones. Though the 1940s spruce beetle epidemic in the Flat Tops Wilderness in northwest Colorado left a plethora of dead trees, for example, some of the live stands in that area are now younger, more diverse and thus more resistant to beetle outbreaks that are hitting surrounding areas today.
Another beacon of hope in the grim beetle-killing saga, the series offers, comes from a Wyoming Game & Fish Department biologist embarking on a ten-year study of how elk and hunters traverse the Sierra Madre mountains, to identify which herds hunters struggle to access because of fallen trees. The biologist, Tony Mong, plans to give his findings to the Forest Service, which then may be able to manage lands to help hunters get to where they need to go. Hunting is the sole form of elk population control in the area, so hunters’ ability to move through the forest is key to keeping that ecosystem healthy, Mong says. Though the study won’t slow down beetle kill directly, it’s meant to help us adapt to the changing landscape the bugs are leaving behind.
Despite the encouraging collaborations between federal and state agencies, hunters and recreationists to take steps to address the bark beetle mortality problem head on, there are still a lot of unknowns. Like, whether or how much the dead trees foster megafires and how much climate change will perpetuate beetle outbreaks into the future.
Below here are a few of the most informative of the new films. For the full series (co-produced in part by Ostlind and another former High Country News intern, Morgan Heim), check out the Beyond Bark Beetles website launched last week.
Tay Wiles is the online editor at High Country News. She tweets @taywiles.