Eyeing Beetles

The bark beetle epidemic is one of the most important issues facing Western resource managers in decades. Beetles have ravaged forests across the Intermountain West leaving behind dead trees and natural fuels. Some experts say makes these forests vulnerable to wildfire, while others say that is not necessarily the case. One thing they do agree on, however, is the scientific research on the periodic nature of these outbreaks, which indicates three driving forces that have caused the beetles to reproduce and spread to vulnerable tree hosts:

  • drought, which can affect a tree’s defenses and cause stress making it more susceptible to a beetle attack;
  • climate change, which can lead to fewer days of low winter temperatures, which in turn can increase the survivability rates of beetle larvae; and
  • forest structure as a result of past forest management practices such as logging leading to many tree stands being the same age, and current management practices, which together has increased the numbers and kinds of suitable host trees.

Now the question is, what next?

Forest managers are grappling with how to manage the forests affected and what to do with the beetle-killed trees, keeping in mind what kind of future forest conditions they might try to create. Removing beetle-killed lodgepole pine, for instance, can make way for a diversity of trees in those areas currently occupied by one single species.

Forest managers are not the only ones concerned with this dilemma. University of Wyoming undergraduates are also considering next steps and how do deal with the affected trees.

The bark beetle issue will be part of a new blog for WyoFile, the Beetle Blog. My name is Brie Richardson and I am a graduate student in UW’s Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) program LINK. I am also the teaching assistant for the ENR Capstone Course, a requirement for seniors in the program which culminates with a project to create an environmental impact assessment on a natural resource issue in Wyoming. Students come to UW from across the nation and the world to study natural resource issues at UW and through ENR. Through this blog I will provide regular posts on their learning experience, and what you can learn from the sources they’re working with, if you want to follow along,  in this applied course, the ENR Capstone.

This semester’s environmental assessment topic focuses on the bark beetle epidemic. We are working on an environmental assessment for a proposal to harvest bark-beetle-kill timber from the Medicine Bow National Forest and reuse it for biofuel. (http://earthtrends.wri.org/updates/node/226).

The class has been broken into teams that are already immersed in the research and data collection work needed to complete the assessment. One thing that the students have commented on is how satisfying it is that their work relates to a real natural resource problem affecting our forests and people’s well-being.

The bark beetle epidemic involves multiple species of beetles, and includes millions of acres of forests impacted. Species include the Mountain Pine Beetle, Spruce Beetle, Douglas-fir Beetle, and Western Balsam Bark Beetle. (http://uwlib5.uwyo.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/digital_audio/pine_beetle/pine_beetle).  Because so many forests have been affected forest managers are finding that they lack experience for dealing with managing the outbreak, particularly because it is occurring at such a large scale. With the students’ assignment to go through the process of creating an actual Environmental Assessment, the question they hope to answer is if bark beetle-kill timber can be utilized for creating biofuels – whether an environmental problem can be turned into something environmentally friendly.

Through this blog we can continue this important dialogue on the bark beetle epidemic. And I look forward to providing you with a guide to some of the research on the problem, as well as the UW students’ perspectives.


Brie Richardson is a second-year graduate student in American Studies/Environment and Natural Resources/Water Resources at the University of Wyoming.  Her interests include environmental law, natural resource management, environmental writing, and historic preservation.  She studied Philosophy of Religion and Theology as an undergraduate and earned her B.A. in Religious Studies from Claremont McKenna College in 2002.  Born and raised in Jackson, Wyoming, she now considers Laramie to be a home-away-from-home.

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  1. A carpenters’ union steward and friend of mine from Missoula says: A 2 by 4 is a great way to sequester carbon.

    Let’s cut a bunch of those trees down and make something: lumber, furniture, house logs, paper; and then plant some carbon dioxide consumer trees in their place. Don’t turn those dead trees back into carbon dioxide.

  2. In the Wind River mountains I’ve noticed lots of new growth in severely affected lodgepole stands. I hope this is being studied. My hunch is that forests will recover faster if the beetle killed trees are left standing since they are still providing some shade and wind protection for the young trees. Also there seem to be drastically fewer newly killed trees this year compared to last. I hope the worst is over.

    What a great choice for your project, and thank you for giving us the opportunity to kibbitz.

  3. I would like to receive news from your blog. How do I do that? I want to protect my Colorado Blue Spruce in my yard here in the Crowheart area. Is there any way that I can do that?

  4. Brodie: “ineffectual” at what, particularly? Halting the epidemic? As i understand Brie’s invite, the proposal the students are working on isn’t addressing any such attempt–only researching a potential human use for the plethora of dead trees, and whether that use can be secured in a way that doesn’t harm other natural, cultural, or social resources during extraction. This seems like a positive direction; not simply officials being pressured to “do something” in the face of such a confluence of factors beyond their direct influence.
    Looking forward to reading more!

  5. Brie: thanks for the invite to tag and learn along with you and other ENR students. As an environmental journalist, I’ve been covering the bark beetle explosion for over a decade. Unlike past episodes, the scale and magnitude of this population explosion is unprecedented in the historical record, and possibly the pre-historical record found in tree rings and the mega-droughts revealed therein.
    Officials feel they have to do something in the face of vast forests turning red and then into skeletal snags, but so far, most of the proposals I’ve seen promise to be fairly ineffectual.