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Beetles, drought and fire, Oh My!

Assistant state forester provides snapshot of forest health

By Aimee Eaton

While the upper valley has largely been spared the fires that ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres of western forests this summer, it has not been without its own threats, and this fall fire remains one of them.

Spruce beetles, bark beetles, Sudden Aspen Decline (SAD) and wildfire have all impacted the state’s forestlands and how they are managed, said Gunnison-based Colorado State Forest Service assistant district forester Sam Pankratz.

“Spruce beetle has been a major concern, and the most destructive agent for the southwest part of the state,” said Pankratz. “Since the early 2000s we’ve seen 1.8 million acres in Colorado affected and we’re seeing it moving into the valley. Monarch Pass is really showing signs of spruce beetle.”

Pankratz said that up until a few years ago spruce beetle outbreaks were primarily found in areas south of Lake City, and it is only recently that the pest, which targets primarily Engelmann spruce forests, has been progressing up the Continental Divide.

There are now heavily impacted stands of forest in the Taylor Park area, and Pankratz said the bug is so pervasive that it has been attacking stands of lodgepole pine—a tree that does not offer a suitable habitat for the beetle’s reproduction and is therefore a dead end.

“There are so many beetles that they’re infecting off-species trees that they can’t even reproduce in,” he said.

Along with spruce beetle, the region is also seeing the Douglas fir beetle and the Western balsam bark beetle.

“We’re seeing stands of Douglas fir in Taylor Canyon and up Cement Creek dying due to beetle outbreaks,” said Pankratz.

On a more positive note, incidences of mountain pine beetle outbreaks and SAD are on the decline, not just in the upper valley, but across the state.

“We haven’t seen a whole lot of SAD since we’ve come out of drought the last five or six years,” said Pankratz of the severe dieback and mortality of aspen groves that came to the forefront for forest managers around 2007. “A lot of those stands that had succumbed are regenerating and there are a lot of young aspens coming up in understory.”

Pankratz said state foresters have not mapped an increase in SAD in the upper valley, and while SAD is a combination of things including beetle infestations and other pests, the root cause of the disease is drought.

That lack of drought has also been a boon in terms of wildfire safety in the valley. This year’s monsoon season, though a little late, was very strong and kept moisture levels in the forest high, said Pankratz. However, now that the monsoons have tapered out, the potential for fire reappears.

“Things are continuing to dry out,” Pankratz said. “We’re entering the season where we have hunters out on the landscape and we’re not necessarily seeing a lot of moisture, yet. Really it shouldn’t matter if we’re wet or dry—people need to be really cautious with fire. There’s always that potential.”

The state forest service offers several tools for landowners for fire mitigation on private land. Grant funds are available and the state foresters can help determine a land management plan to guard against wild fire damage.

“There’s always an inherent risk living out in the mountains in terms of wildfire,” said Pankratz. “We all need to be proactive.”

Beyond managing for fire prevention, land owners and users can help bolster forest health by being aware of the dangers of bark beetles and other diseases. The state foresters recommend being cautious about firewood and where firewood is coming from. Harvested wood should come only from standing dead or dead and down trees to prevent the spread of insects into new areas.

“With the epidemics of this level there isn’t a ton you can do ahead of the game,” said Pankratz. “Much of the work that could have potentially prevented infestation would have needed to come from conversations held 100 years ago. Right now one of the best management tools we have is the promotion of forest diversity and age class. The more diverse the forest is, the less impact any one problem will have. One of the best steps individuals can take is to plant trees and plant a diversity of trees.”

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