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Shoshone National Forest battles beetle bane

When Shoshone National Forest wrote its National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan in 1986, pine beetles were not an issue.  But the bugs are devastating the forest now, said District Ranger Terry Root.

Because of those changes, beetles must be considered in future plans for the forest. As a part of the current forest plan revision process, National Forest personnel hosted a seminar and field trip to discuss the beetle epidemic last week.

More than 1 million acres of the Shoshone have been infected with multiple species of beetles, said Mark Giacoletto, Shoshone fire management officer.

The epidemic has lasted nearly 10 years on North Fork of the Shoshone River, according to a handout from the service.

“I would sum it up that the entire forest has been impacted to a certain extent,” said Kurt Allen, entomologist for the service from Rapid City, S.D.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, beetles killed millions of acres of Western trees. It happened before and will happen again, Allen said.

The plan is and has been to remove infected trees through timber sales, treat Douglas fir with Methylcyclohexanone, or MCH, and use prescribed fires in roadless or wilderness areas, Giacoletto said. 

MCH deceives beetles into believing a tree is at beetle capacity so they don’t invade the beetle-free tree.

The service will continue to thin trees when needed in high-value areas such as campgrounds, cabins and lodges. All developed sites have been treated and hazardous trees removed at least once in the last 10 years, and aggressive treatment and thinning occurred in those areas in the last four or five years, mostly due to pine beetle infestations, Giacoletto said.

In the past 10 years, nearly 13,000 acres of timber have been harvested. Nearly 13,000 acres are in the planning or implementation stage of logging.

Planned burns also have removed beetle-infested trees.

Approximately 40,000 acres have seen prescribed or planned burns and another 60,000 acres are slated to burn, Giacoletto said.

Through last year, 180,000 acres had burned in the Shoshone. Of those, only about 10,000 to 15,000 acres had blazed where the Foreest Service didn’t want it to. The rest of the acreage burned in the backcountry, Giacoletto said.

Trees up and down the North Fork Corridor have been thinned around cabins and campgrounds to protect the sites from fire. “We can protect these structures,” said Clint Dawson, zone fire manager for the Shoshone.

Since 1988, the service has spent millions of dollars in fire suppression and tree thinning to protect Pahaska Tepee and the lodges/cabins and campgrounds throughout the North Fork Corridor. If fires ignite in the backcountry, the service doesn’t fear the blazes taking out developed sites, Giacoletto said.

On Moss Creek, trees around the cabins were thinned before the Gunbarrel Fire of 2008. On the surrounding hills, the trees were not, Dawson said.

When the fire came, the trees were lost upstream and in the hills, but the cabin area trees did not burn.

Shallow Moss Creek struggles to bypass creek bed stones in its quest to join the river. Orange willow leaves flutter in the cold breeze, and the snags stand like burned and splintered matchsticks, but the cabin areas feel homey amid evergreen guards.

Beetles do kill trees, but it is not all doom and gloom. With the big trees gone, the understory rejuvenates, said Shoshone National Forest Silviculturist Jason Brey.

Aspen are coming back, and there are pine restoration projects with the limited resources that are available, Brey said.

In locations where Douglas fir still stands, new trees will grow, but it takes time, said Dan Tinker, fire ecologist at the University of Wyoming.

There is regeneration.

Several studies indicate tree regeneration is occurring. Resilience should be the focus, because resistance to beetles is less certain, Tinker said.

“I don’t want to act like we know exactly what is going to happen, because we don’t,” Tinker said.

A blow-down west of Canyon in Yellowstone National Park in 1984 flattened trees in a large area. Then, the 1988 fire burned the trees, Tinker said.

A recent photo at the same site shows Tinker standing with a healthy forest of conifers as a backdrop.

“Are things better?” Tinker asked. “I leave that up to you to decide.”

On a recent chilly morning with the Shoshone River a stone’s throw away and Eagle Creek a few hundred yards to the east, Dawson, zone fire manager for the Shoshone, pointed out where beetles attacked and where that assault was thwarted.

On a hillside, healthy trees are interspersed with a few snags, and down trees lay like tapered tombstones in an abandoned graveyard. Taller, healthier pines are spaced around the cabins like green centurions.

Thanks to MCH caps tacked to the trees in 1999 around the cabins, beetles didn’t hit. Trees were thinned beginning in 1988 to defend the dwellings from potential fire, Dawson said.

MCH is an effective deterrent to Douglas fir beetles, but other treatments for other beetles aren’t as effective. MCH caps cost $1 each, and it takes about 30 to 35 caps per acre. The caps are used mostly for high-value areas, Allen said.

At Sleeping Giant Ski Area, lodge pole pine was hit hard by beetles and heavy logging followed, Dawson said.

From the highway, the runs are easily distinguished, giving it a park-like look.

Dawson recalls skiing there through heavy timber in the 1970s. 

The West is changing. Longer and more severe fire seasons in recent years, widespread beetle epidemics and growing wild-land and urban interface challenge firefighters, said Russ Parsons, fire research ecologist at the Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Mont.

Beetle-killed trees morph from pre-attack green to dead trees with red needles to dead trees minus needles called the gray stage.

Red trees light easier and burn hot and fast. The potential for spotting (aloft embers) likely increases, said Parsons.

Knowledge of gray stage fires is limited, but in Canada, standing gray trees produce intense heat and plenty of embers. Wind speed can increase as snags fall to the ground, he said.

The beetle epidemic’s impact will likely last for decades to come. How that will affect fire behavior is not fully understood at this time. More research is needed.

“It’s a frontier in fire science,” Parsons said.

A draft management plan was published in the Federal Register in August, and the public comment period runs until Nov. 1.

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