The Beetles: 6,000 Miles of Climate Change — Long Version

This is the original long version with much more detail and all of the destinations and forest health descriptions along the 6,000 mile route. The abbreviated  2,000 word version was published on Truthout on February 16, 2016 is here.

We were awash for 19 days in a tumultuous sea of mountains and forests, drifting a course through the heart of the US Rockies on a 6,000 mile observation journey. Our film, What Have We Done, the North American Pine Beetle Pandemic, was released in 2009. It was the story of what is now 89 million acres of forest across the North American West that has been attacked by native insects and naturally occurring disease. The insects and infestations had been driven to berserkly unprecedented numbers by warming and they killed most of the trees in the forests in their wake.

Groundhog Park DSC_0088 4288 px

A million acres of spruce beetle kill drape this alpine mountain park like a heavy wool blanket. Except for a green strip of young trees along the old logging roads that crisscross forested areas like these, ninety percent or more of the rest of the forest has been killed. Groundhog Park, La Garita Range, Rio Grande National forest, south central Colorado, elev. 11,000 feet. Background: Mesa Mountain, elev. 12,994 feet.

 

It has been four years since our last post-film observation cruise in 2010 where we navigated 7,500 miles  back and forth across the Continental Divide from Austin to British Columbia and back. Our epic crossing was different this time. It wasn’t just a few species of conifer, and the mountainsides of impacted forests were not predominantly bright red this time. Some were red. Some were brown, and some were gray. Rarely was there a range unaffected. Likewise, it seemed that not a species was unaffected.

The main insect in the attack from the late 199os to today, the mountain pine beetle, has significantly dwindled, but new insect pests have radically increased their attacks on other types of trees. The scale of these new attacks, like the last attack, appears to be like nothing we have seen before.

A single species of native beetle had attacked 20 times more forest than ever recorded, with a kill that ranged from 60 to nearly 100 percent. It began in the late 1990s and was widespread from New Mexico to British Columbia.

The attack of the mountain pine beetle has ebbed to 1.6 million acres of new kill in 2014. This is down from a peak of 11 million in 2009, but still bigger than Delaware. Forest professionals said this would happen when the beetle had eaten through its favorite food, the lodgepole pine. These lodgepole forests make up about 20 percent of Western North American forest and the beetle has basically killed as much as 75 percent of all those trees. At a likely conservative 100 trees per acre, this is seven billion trees. The 45 million acres of kill in the US represents 12 percent of forested area in the US West.

Pitch tubes DSC_0031

Pitch tubes where sap in this lodgepole pine has oozed out from a mountain pine bark beetle holes. The beetles larvae bore into the tree and form galleries between the bark and sapwood where they eat and pupate into tiny moths. 10,000 beetles can infest a single tree. They have devastated 60 to 90 percent of the trees in most of the lodgepole forests across western North America where lodgepole pine make up about 20 percent of all major forest tree species.

Predominant thinking about the course of this attack has been similar to that of other attacks in the past. The beetle attacks old stressed trees in dense stands during drought. If conditions are optimum, the attacks can grow to millions of acres over ten or fifteen years. But there is no record of the attack crossing the Continental Divide, spreading to such wide ranging geographic regions across the West, or evolving to where the beetle was attacking more than just a single species of tree in one attack. All of this has now occurred.

Forest professionals said that once the mountain pine beetle had run its course, the devastated forests would begin to recover. And they have. Young trees have sprouted up everywhere and because the young are so vigorous, it will be many decades before the effects of age, increasing temperatures, or another extreme drought will stress them enough to be vulnerable to similar attacks. And there has been good regrowth in most of the oldest beetle kill areas.

Red Dendroctonus ponderosae, The Mountain Pine Beetle and a Domino DSC_0093

Dendroctonus ponderosae, the Mountain Pine Beetle on a domino. up to 10,000 can attack a single tree. The first year their larvae eat out galleries between the bark and the sapwood, cut off the tree’s circulation and it dies. The second year the mature beetles fly and the tree turns red or brown. The third year the needles brown  more and begin to fall. By the fourth year the trees are skeletons of grey sticks.

This phenomena is not new and it is not bad in of itself.  This is one of the few ways that mature forests regenerate. Insects, disease and fire take out weak trees and leave room for diversity in pioneer species that take their place. At its most extreme like is happening now, it is an ecological reordering that happens every time there is an abrupt climate change. It is an ecosystem collapse, they have very likely happened over 20 times in the last 100,00 years and what grows back, if we can stabilize our climate, ultimately will be quite different because it will grow back in a quite different climate. In the meantime, the fledgling forest or shrubland, grassland, or whatever immature toddler of an ecosystem may recur, is enormously productive biologically.

All total, there are 3.8 million acres of impacted forest across the US West in 2013. Spruce beetle was a half million acres, up from 317,000 acres in 2009. The fir engraver beetle, western pine beetle, Douglas fir beetle, ips beetle, and subalpine fir mortality complex all rank about 250 million acres each, most of them a significant increase from the late 2000s. The US total footprint of the mountain pine beetles 2000 to 2013 was 23.5 million acres.

It’s not a good thing, but it is not a bad thing either. It maybe bad for a lot of living things right now, but they will be replaced by a much more prolific young ecology soon. It’s just a thing that happens every half-dozen millenia give or take a half-dozen. It is what happens when we have an abrupt climate change.

Red kill needles may Creek Campground Idaho DSC_0065

Some beetles attack rapidly and cause redkill, where the conifers needles turn red the year after the attack as the tree dies. Shown in this image, a Douglas fir’s color often changes to a totally surreal bright red color when attacked. Today, along the trail of this expedition, as much red Douglas fir as red lodgepole pine was seen. The lodgepole was the predominant tree attacked over the last fifteen years.

Mankind is the cause this time because our climate would naturally be slowly cooling right now because of changes in orbital cycles. Any abrupt changes that would have started naturally over the last several hundred years would have been an abrupt cooling change, not abrupt warming as we are experiencing now.

In Canada the attack is moving into a new phase. While the kill is only a small fraction of what it was in the early 21st century, it has now moved into the high latitude boreal forest of the subarctic where the temperature increase has been over 2 degrees C since the beginning of the 20th century. This is more than twice the global average and it is virtually the same as seen at altitude across the Rockies where the outbreaks have been so extreme.

The kill was enhanced by abnormally warm temperatures and drought in the late 1990s and most of the 2000s. The beetle naturally selects older dense stands of trees that are easily stressed. But this time almost any mature tree was fair game, and all but the very youngest were at risk. The longer warm summer period is also having significant impact on beetle numbers. Before, it was so cold that beetles often had trouble moving through their life cycles in one year. As winter would catch immature beetle larvae, they would go dormant until the next year when they could complete their life cycle. Today, the warm season is long enough so that the beetles can sometimes complete two full life cycles, rapidly advancing the number of beetles available to attack.

Decades of fire suppression had also increased the normal amount of old dense stands. In combination with increased warming, a longer warm season and more drought periods, increased forest stress  has allowed the drought enhanced kill to multiply exponentially. There were so many pine beetles they were attacking spruce and fir trees.

What remains after a number of years begins to resemble a massive burn area, but all the small limbs remain and there is no blackening of the trunks. The beetle kill also is much more homogeneous than wildfire. Wildfire commonly burns in a hopscotch pattern where a burn/no burn checkerboard is formed. Beetle kill is much more widespread with many fewer islands of forest remaining green.

The New Beetles

Despite the return of normal and even above normal rainfall across the Rockies over the last half dozen years, beetle kill continues to advance. Theories about why beetle attack continues revolve around the continued stress seen in forests created by warmer temperatures and increased evaporation. 

Changing rainfall patterns are likely also to blame because longer dry periods in between rain events create even more extreme periods of drying and associated forest stress. Trees can also take many decades to recovery from extreme drought because after their root hairs get singed off, those root hairs simply don’t grow back fast enough to keep all the needles healthy.

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Lodgepole pine redkill in Rocky Mountain National Park, 2008.

The mountain pine bark beetle is the most aggressive of some two dozen species of native bark beetles in North America. It is killed only by very sustained winter temps in the 20 below range early and late in the season, and 40 below in midwinter. Twenty years of warming, twice as much as the global average, greater in the mountains that at lower elevations, and greater at night than in the day, has created an absence of these extreme low beetle killing temperatures and allowed the mountain pine beetle to proliferate to unprecedented numbers.

The mountain pine beetle kill is definitively down. But amazingly, it appears that as much forest seems to be impacted today, from different insect attacks, as was present at the peak of the mountain pine beetle attack in the mid and late 2000s.

At least two new species of bark beetle and a budworm (moth larvae) are responsible this time: the spruce beetle, fir beetle, and spruce/fir budworm.

Across the Continental Divide — 22 Times

The expedition made 17 different camps from Sante Fe to Missoula. New significant mountain pine beetle attacks appeared more widespread than the numbers indicate. Spruce beetle, fir beetle and budworm seem to be everywhere this trip. The most extreme infestations were generally at altitude in Colorado and far northern New Mexico, but severe attacks of spruce and fir beetle and budworm virtually everywhere there was forest.

There seemed to be no differentiation between low and high altitude in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. One of the possible reasons for this is that at higher latitudes the treeline lowers as the weather in the highlands is colder than at lower latitudes at the same elevation. The combination of high altitude and high latitude favors the climate change induced stress that attracts insect infestations.

There were 18 national forests in our path that meandered through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Utah. The observation trail crossed the Continental Divide 22 times.  This is just an anecdotal report, and there were a lot of trees along the 6,000 mile path of this inspection. It was cold, it was sunny, it rained, but no snow this year. We had a more than a few campfires and saw mountain range upon mountain range extending day after day in a blur of trees, camp meals, interstates, little towns, big mountains, gravel roads, sunsets, wildlife and fabulous vistas.

Overall, there seemed to be as much forest with new or relatively new attack as there was at the height of the pine beetle attack a half dozen years ago. Aspen health this season seems much better than any of my previous investigations since the mid-2000s where aspen decline, aspen leaf roller and aspen leaf miner were severe in major regional areas. Fast growing aspen are much more adept at recovery than conifers, but slower growing trees can remain impaired for generations after an extreme drought.

Hallmark of Climate Change

It’s not the warming per se. It’s the extremes. Species evolved with the ability to cope with a certain weather extremes. Increase those extremes (make it hotter) and most species don’t do so well, or if they cannot quickly migrate, like trees, they get sick and mortality increases.

Another example of a beetle attack scenario enhanced by climate change is a blow-down from extreme storm winds. Increasing storminess across the West increase the occurrence of strong winds and the chance of big blowdowns. Spruce bark beetles love blow-downs. Their population explodes and the surrounding forested regions, already stressed from more than a decade of drought, allow these blowdown attacks to move into epidemic proportions.

Warming creates a new climate where extreme events increase nonlinearly. A little warming creates a lot more extremes.   Example: NASA and Columbia researchers have shown extreme heat, that once happened across 0.1 to 0.2 percent of the Northern Hemisphere every year, now happens across ten percent every year. This means we have already experienced–with just a little more than one degree F of warming–an increase of heat extremes of 10 to 100 times.

Groundhog Park Rio Grande Valley View DSC_0059 72 dpi

The Rio Grande River seen from Groundhog Park in the La Garita Mountains of south central Colorado (elevation 11,000 feet). Bark beetle attacks often begin at high altitudes where temperature changes the most creating the most forest stress. A broad reaching new spruce beetle kill is spreading across southern Colorado. Click on the image to see how the lower elevation forest is impacted less than higher elevations. Behind the camera (in photos below), the kill is almost complete.

All of these evaporation enhancements have created an environment where drought is more likely to occur more often and makes it possible that drought can last longer than it once did too. You might say that drought has become more normal than it once was.

Drought, and especially longer, more extreme drought, kills tree’s root hairs. Root hairs are what are responsible for the vast majority of a tree’s water and nutrient uptake.  Root hairs occur on most roots and these roots grow incrementally, just like leaves or needles, so the amount of leaves and root hairs increase at the same rate every year.

When root hairs are killed by drought, incremental regrowth can take decades or generations to reestablish a density of regrown root hairs that is large enough to sustain the leaves or needles a tree has developed over its lifetime. Partly because of this we are seeing forest stress remaining at high levels because so many trees have had their little root hairs singed off by drought. The stressed trees are easy targets and the insect attacks continue to increase.

Western forests have been heavily impacted by drought since the end of the 20th century.  Even though rainfall has returned, streamflow remains low because of extra evaporation.

Evaporation Increases Nonlinearly with Warming

Across the American West, warming is twice the global average. Higher temperatures cause more evaporation, and this relationship is also nonlinear. A little bit of warming creates a lot of evaporation.  Spring is also coming one to four weeks earlier across widespread ares of the West as measured by when streamflow begins to increase at the end of winter. Fall is coming later too but it not as easy to evaluate how much earlier melt begins. So now the warm season, with even more evaporation than before, is a likely at least a month longer than it once was.

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The extreme attacks of native bark beetles happening today have been allowed in part by old stressed forests because of fire suppression, but this location was logged extensively a hundred years ago which makes this forest mature but relatively young (Groundhog Park, south central Colorado).

To top all of this warming off, there is a warming feedback that amplifies extreme heat events. The way it works is that the warmer it gets the more it dries things out and the lower the humidity becomes.  With less humidity, the air temperature can warm more, drying things out more and lowering the humidity further, allowing even more warming.

Drought can be perpetuated even in times with above normal rainfall. So not only does drought stress continue, it is not alleviated as much as the increased precipitation would indicated.

It’s an apparent drought. We have never really experienced this kind of thing before, so we do not really know how to behave. Fortunately we have reservoirs to help us remember.

Because forest stress continues, more beetle species are building their populations. Stress from this extreme event will linger into forthcoming drought periods enhancing ecosystem damages beyond what they would be in a healthy forest.

More ominously, spruce/fir forests that dominate as much forest area as lodgepole before the mountain pine beetle attack are seeing very a marked and likely unprecedented increase in population.

Weminuche and La Garita Kill, Colorado

Most astounding of all the new kill is a southwestern and south central Colorado attack of spruce beetle. In a earlier nearby attack to the west, from about 2000 to 2010, one million acres of spruce was killed by the spruce beetle in the Weminuche Wilderness between Silverton, Durango, Creede and Pagosa Springs. Over the last several years this outbreak has jumped to the La Garita Mountains east of the Weminuche and west of the Front Range.

Groundhog Park Panorama 2015

(click to see panorama) Groundhog Park, La Garita Range, Rio Grande National Forest, South Central Colorado. A million acre spruce beetle kill has devastated this alpine spruce forest at 1,000 feet.

The new outbreak likely covers another million acres in the 80 miles across central southern Colorado between Lake City and Saguache. In a single 100,000 acre forested area above 10,000 foot  elevation called Groundhog Park  in the Rio Grande National Forest, 90 percent kill stretches as far as the eye can see. The kill happened over the last several years and, save for very young spruce and fir along the four-wheel drive road and the normal meadows full of wildflowers, everything is solid brown.

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Spruce beetle on Simpson Mountain (elevation 12,904), Northern Weminuche Wilderness Area, Rio Grande National Forest, Headwaters of the Rio Grande River, Colorado.

Far southwestern Colorado spruce beetle outbreak in Engleman spruce. Near Dunton on the West Dolores River, immediately south of the Lizard Head Wilderness Area, San Juan National Forest, Elliot Mountain, 12,340 ft.

To the west, evidence of aggressive attack is also seen in the Animas and Dolores River basins east of the Weminuche in the San Juan and Uncompagre National Forests in far southwestern Colorado, especially in the higher altitudes. Budworm and spruce beetle are scattered around, mostly in light quantities, but occasionally an entire mountainside will be solid brown.

Along the northern border of the Weminuche Wilderness between Creede and Silverton, the spruce beetle is moving out of the wilderness area to the north towards the Alpine Loop of high altitude four-wheel drive mining trails.

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Lodgepole pine under attack from the mountain pine beetle in Ouray, southwestern Colorado.

Forests across the Rockies are mixed species as a rule, but large geographic areas are made up of single species forests. The Weminuche Wilderness and La Garita Range are two high altitude areas where Engleman spruce are predominant. Across much of southern Colorado though, blue spruce and Douglas fir predominate. In still other areas ponderosa pine are prominent and generally, lodgepole pine, the favorite of the mountain pine beetle, is pretty scarce.

Ouray Ice Climbing area 2015 DSC_0005 72 dpi

Red Kill from mountain pine beetle at Ouray (click to enlarge).There’s a bridge at the bend in the road below that goes over the Ouray ice canyon. This man made ice climbing area was born of natural ice falls in the canyon where springs spilled over the cliffs. Enterprising ice climbers in Ouray began running sprinklers across the tops of the cliffs along over a half mile of the Uncompahgre River Canyon twenty years ago. The ice park is free to climb and possibly the greatest ice climbing venue in the world.

The mountain pine beetle has been pretty scarce in southern and southwestern Colorado too, as-in completely absent scarce. This is partially because the lodgepole is not too common. But also likely that the beetle just hasn’t infested this area yet. But that has all changed this year in Ouray in far southwestern Colorado.

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Spruce beetle attack at Spruce Campground, south central Colorado, north of the La Garita Wilderness, East of Lake City.

Ouray is called Little Switzerland by the locals and for good reason. The second highest concentration of fourteeners (14,000 foot tall mountains) are in southwestern Colorado. The largest concentration of high elevation four-wheel drive trails in North America are in southwestern Colorado and Ouray is home to the world’s first ice climbing park and the ice climbing capital of the U.S. This Ouray attack marks the debut of the red kill from the mountain pine beetle in all of southern Colorado.

Sage Park Gunnison NF west of Saguache CO DSC_0207

East of Ouray to Lake City, the high altitude trail runs back into central Colorado north of the La Garita Range. This is the northern edge of the spruce beetle attack. All they way to Saguache, the spruce beetle and budworm are ever present. Sometimes mountainsides are killed, sometimes it’s just a haze of dull trees that are infested with budworm. But mostly in this area as in most areas above 10,000 feet, there is a lot more heavy to exceptional kill than moderate. Sage Park, Rio Grande National Forest, elev. 10,200.

I70, Rocky Mountain National Park, Steamboat Springs

Northward through Gunnison, Buena Vista, Aspen, Leadville, forests are pretty stable. A light amount of kill is evident from over the last decade, and only a little new kill is readily apparent. One of the exceptions in this region of south central Colorado is the approach to Cottonwood Pass, on the west slope of the Collegiate Range, where there is a really bad budworm outbreak. And in reality there could likely be a lot more budworm everywhere it is not apparent from afar. It is just hard to see unless inside the forest with it. From a distance, budworm attack presents as a dull looking area of forest where the worms have eaten off all of the new years growth buds. It takes successive years of heavy budworm to kill trees. Once dead, they look like the rest of the dead trees.

Rocky Mountain National Park Westgate entrance monument comparison (click for larger view) . The peak of the redkill in this areas was 2008. Note the tall trees between the road and the monument that have been logged to prevent them from falling on the road.

There is no apparent new beetle kill along I70 west of the Continental Divide, mainly because the mountain pine beetle ravaged this mostly lodgepole pine forest region in the 2000s. Today it looks like another massive fire had blazed across yet another mountain range, except small limbs remain on the trees that still stand and there is no charcoal blackening of trunks. Up towards Winter Park from Georgetown, new kill is evident in small amounts similar to the way it has been for nearly a decade.

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The Never Summer Range, just to the west of the northern section of Rocky Mountain National Park. Spruce beetle attack in the Never Summers is heavy above 10,000 feet. Dead lodgepole (foreground left) remain after the mountain pine beetle swept through in 2008.

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Long Draw Reservoir, north of Rocky Mountain National Park, Cache la Poudre River. Many mountainsides in the upper reaches of the Roosevelt National Forest, Poudre have exceptional levels of kill from mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle.

The approach to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) from Granby too, is similar to I70 and the way it was in the last decade with the near complete kill they had then. Along the roads, the forest has been clearcut a tree’s height back from the highway because of falling hazards. Across the mountainsides dead trees have begun to fall. Many of the skeletal trees in towns dotted along the route have been cut as have all trees within a fall of power lines, roads and most trails.

Real estate agents in beetle devastated areas describe the beetle’s impact as creating “emerging vistas.” And this really is what has happened with views opening up all over, especially along roadways.

The landscape has radically changed. The forest fire similarity is unreal, only fire happens at only a tiny fraction of this magnitude. Mountains can be seen everywhere now. The wall of trees so prominent in a normal forest is not to be taken for granted any longer.

In RMNP, on the west side in the headwaters of the Colorado River, the spruce beetle has replaced the pine beetle with significant new kill, mostly in the higher altitudes because lodgepole inhabit lower elevations on this (western) side of the park. The east side of the park towards Estes Park seems to have no more kill than in 2010 and fortunately only about a 30 to 50 percent kill occurred then on the east side of the park. The park service did have to cut most of the trees in Glacier Basin campground because of camper falling hazards and Timber Creek Campground on the west side  has begun to see a bit of new sapling growth after being clearcut in 2008.

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Cache La Poudre River hazard tree clearcut along the road. To keep these roads open with so many dead trees, roadside clearcutting is mandatory. If the trees are salvaged within about three years they are usable as lumber. Within five years they are usable as pelletized or cut wood fuel. But because of the fungus that infects the trees along with the bark beetles, the wood becomes very brittle after five years. The brittle wood is too dangerous to log as the tops of the trees crack off and fall on the loggers.

North of the Park along the Cache La Poudre River, all of the different forest attacking beetles and the budworm are present. In the lower elevation ponderosa dominates with mountain pine beetle and budworm in light to moderate amounts. As altitude increases, spruce, fir and lodgepole pine replace the ponderosa with beetles and budworm attacking in moderate to heavy amounts. In many places at higher altitude the kill is exceptional at greater than 75 percent. On the west side of the Continental Divide, the kill is spotty at lower elevations where the forest is mostly lodgepole pine but approaches 100 percent occasionally. Hazard tree logging is apparent at all campgrounds in moderate to heavy amounts.

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Denver Creek Campground, Arapaho National Forest, north central Colorado. Lodgepole pine killed by mountain pine beetle. Three stumps are visible in the campsite from trees cut to keep them from falling on campers. (click to zoom)

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A pair of ancient lodgepole fallen to pine bark beetle at Camp Hale Campground, San Isabel National Forest, Central Colorado. The attack at Camp Hale is moderate and active with clearing of hazard trees beginning in the campground proper.

Down Willow Creek towards central Colorado the attack remained consistently modest to severe. At Denver Creek Campground, almost all of the trees had been killed by beetle and almost every tree in the campground has been cut to keep them from falling on campers.

Onwards to the west towards Steamboat Springs: we approached over the mountains from the northeast. Rising up into the high country, there was little evidence of beetle kill until topping out. At altitude the kill was varied, but ever present in moderate amounts.

South from Steamboat back towards Dillon and I70 there was a surprising amount of budworm on most mountains, and nearing I70 significant recent red kill from mountain pine beetle activity was seen.

Yellowstone

The trip to Yellowstone from Central Colorado followed a path through Northwestern Colorado. There aren’t many trees in this region, but where there were trees, there were beetle and budworm in large numbers. Likewise, southwestern Wyoming is anything but “treed.”

Approaching Yellowstone from the south however, beetle damage is much more widespread than in 2010  and approaches 50 percent in the majority of the area. This is a mixed forest and pine, spruce and fir beetles as well as budworm are present. Many forests in the Yellowstone ecosystem have been wiped out. The kill of the endemic white bark pine is so complete that Environmental Defense has petitioned to list the species as endangered.Bison crop DSC_0093

In the US Fish and Wildlife response to the petition it was determined that “Whitebark pine is ecologically very significant in maintaining snow pack and regulating runoff, initiating succession after fire or other disturbance events, and providing seeds that are a high-energy food source for many species of wildlife. Threats to the whitebark pine include habitat loss and mortality from white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetle, catastrophic fire and fire suppression, environmental effects resulting from climate change, and the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.” Fish and Wildlife concluded that: “the whitebark pine warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but that adding the species to the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants is precluded by the need to address other listing actions of a higher priority… the the threats are of high magnitude and are imminent.” Fish and Wildlife has determined the whitebark pine ” is eligible for ESA protection and [will] review its status annually.”

Whitebark pine kill, Sylvan Lake, southeast Yellowstone. Click to Zoom. Notice the old fire scar in the upper left.

Eastgate continues to show new  pine beetle kill in the badly hit whitebark pine forest with what looks like redkill from pine beetle as well as spruce and fir beetle and budworm, and the forest really looks bad. The pine beetle along the highway in Grand Teton National Park has seen no new attack fortunately.

Across the northern portion of the park budworm is widespread and a few areas are beginning to see kill from continued stress. In 2010, budworm was about as thick as this year, but there was no kill then.

Across the park, as viewed from the road and in areas that were not burned in the great fires of 1988 that scorched 800,000 acres (36 percent of the park), obvious beetle kill is not very bad but it continues to worsen. Anecdotally, the amount of kill is double or even triple the 2 to 3 percent impacted in 2010. New kill is especially evident along the continental divide approaching the Old Faithful complex from Grand Tetons.

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Budworm in the Beaverhead/Deer Lodge National Forest, Montana.

Montana and Idaho

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Mountain pine beetle at May Creek Campground, Beaverhead/Deer Lodge National Forest Montana.

West from Yellowstone into Idaho and Montana, wherever there is forest, there are beetles or budworm: the Lemhi Range, the Beaverkill and the Lost River Range are all impacted to some extent. Several campgrounds have active logging to remove hazard trees. The southern extent of the Lemhi Range is particularly hard hit with redkill from mountain pine beetle.

Towards Missoula on Idaho/Montana 90 past the Bitterroot Range there was not much kill evident until we reached Missoula. East from there back into Montana, there was lots of old pine beetle and new spruce and fir beetle and budworm.

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Budworm on Rock Creek, Lolo National Forest, Montana.

South from the Interstate on Rock Creek it was hot and dry and could have been a scene out of A River Runs Through It, only budworm was ever present in the background. This brings to mind a game we play at my house: pretty obviously, we watch a lot of nature television, and a lot of that is preferentially focused on the Rockies of North America. Really, it doesn’t even have to be nature television. Movies or reality shows about logging or mining or survival, log cabon teevee, RV teevee, travel teevee–all of them show pretty mountains in the background regularly. Look closely at the mountains and very often, unnervingly often, you will see tree kill.

Which brings up another important thing that needs to be said about this forest catastrophe we are experiencing. This is a very sad, sad event that could have been at least partially avoided if we had of begun to reduce emissions in the mid 1990s when scientists first suggested it prudent.

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Aspen decline in the Deer Lodge National Forest, Montana. This was one of the very few places I saw aspen in distress this trip (image right). In 2010 the aspen decline had reached about a million acres across the west and this was probably a significant underestimate. But beginning in the late 2000, the Rockies began to see a string of years with generally above normal rainfall. Fast growing aspen can adapt much faster than conifers after drought and as a consequence, very little aspen decline was evident this time around. The kill in the conifers was budworm and old pine beetle.

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Rock Creek, Lolo National Forest, Montana/Idaho border. Around a corner and there was a helicopter dipping water out of the river. The smell of smoke had been coming and going. Never did see smoke. The “halo” looking effect along the edges of the trees on the mountain behind the helicopter is the budworm haze.

But being sad, or depressed, or angry, or guilty–all of these things create personal discord that inhibits positive action. Don’t be sad, be active. Work to right this wrong. And never, ever forget to enjoy the beauty of this great land we live in. Even cloaked in devastation, nature is beautiful. The new forest, or the new species assemblage that arises from these attacks will for some time ahead be a highly diverse and very productive.

All this new sunlight hitting the forest floor will allow dormant plants and seeds to bound into the ecology from the confines of the dormancy of a climax ecosystem. The rebound won’t just be in greater diversity of plants, animals of all kinds will proliferate in far greater numbers than in their old climax ecosystems. Species more accustomed to drought will dominate in succession as they normally do for the first 50 or 75 years in the life of a forest. By the time three-quarters of decade has elapsed, climate pollution controls will have kicked in and we will very likely have recovered to an equilibrium climate state. A new climax  ecosystem will arise which may or may not be similar to the forest that it is replacing depending on if we stabilize our climate at around 350 ppm CO2 or less or not. Long before then though, if we have not stabilized our climate, most of the forests across this great planet will be in chaos.

Somewhere southeast of Missoula about 50 miles there is a bright spot in a dull forest of budworm and fir and pine beetle attack. It’s an ancient ponderosa pine forest with trunks nearly as big around as the suburban.

Big Ponderosa and suburban south of Missoula Rock Ck Mt DSC_0084 72 dpi

A spectacular ponderosa pine grove of 300 year-old trees on Rock Creek in the Lolo National Forest, Montana. Click to enlarge and you can see the familiar dull haze of the budworm on the mountainside in the background.

The road was smooth, sandy and narrow allowing only one vehicle at a time. The beautiful Rock Creek ( a river in Texas) was visible here and there. Somehow, forest service engineers had found a way to line a road through this beautiful grove between the mountainside and the river. I piloted my tiny suburban through the towering red columns of ponderosa bark like it was a toy truck in a child’s sandbox.

The quietness was reverent. A grasshopper clattered in the sun along a dry slough that bordered the river. The impossibly deep croak of raven broke the silence as it wandered by, answered by a distant and equally cavernous raven call a half mile away. It could have been the warmest day of the year on the Montana/Idaho border. The aroma of hot ponderosa pine mixing with powdery white dust was almost hallucinatory. A nap tugged at my consciousness.

Low to moderate insect impacts remained visible until we hit the interstate in the lowlands and screamed south at 85 miles an hour towards Utah through the massive rolling scantily grassed hills that lie between the mountain ranges of central Idaho.

The east slope of the Uintas in Central Utah appeared untouched from the interstate, but up in the mountains damage was clear. It appeared to be similar to Idaho; pine, spruce and fir beetle with budworm. But there is not much high country in Utah compared to lowland, treeless desert.

Approaching SW Colorado from Utah, the pinyon pine beetle was evident in pinyon pines. In the four corners region of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona there was a very extreme attack of the pinyon pine beetle that killed three million acres in the mid 2000s. The pinyon beetle blended into budworm and spruce beetle at altitude; not too bad in most places, but extreme in others.

San Juans from south Mineral DSC_0006

The San Juan Mountains from South Mineral Creek, just west of Silverton Colorado, San Juan National Forest.

It was really a sad thing to see some of my oldest, most favorite places in the Rockies so badly harmed by climate change. In all of my other beetle trips, the attack was not so personal. I have been visiting south central Colorado nearly every summer to camp, fish, hike and drive the four-wheel drive trails since the 1970s.

But just 50 miles west in the valley of the South Mineral River a few miles west of Silverton, Colorado, also much visited in my personal world of mountains, rivers, trails, fourteeners and fish, still retains its unharmed green mantle.

I have learned to view the catastrophic climate impacts I report on as the natural phenomenon they are. They are caused by Man’s greenhouse gas emissions true, but they are truly a natural ecological response to what has happened so many times in prehistory.

These ecological responses are fascinating whether from the beetle, fire or disease. How Mother Nature responds, how she struggles to reaffirm life in catastrophic situations, gives me hope, and allows me to disregard grief and continue on.

If you have read much of my work at ClimateDiscovery.org, you know that the solutions to climate pollution are simple and no more costly than what we spend on advertising across the planet every year. I have faith that we will be able to save our climate, and we will even be able to save it at the last minute if need be.  But we must begin to remove some of the climate pollution directly from our atmosphere. Simple emissions reductions alone are no longer enough. We have delayed too long. We can do this, and we can do it faster and sooner if enough of you tell your friends.

See more photo of previous expeditions here.

What Have We Done: the Mountain Pine Beetle Pandemic, 2009

Ecosystems Collapse Noiselessly: 20,000 words, 57 photos and graphics: The story of mountain pine beetle pandemic and climate change.

Our Other Films

DRAFT US Forest Service, Forest Health Monitoring: National Status, Trends, and Analysis 2014

USDA Forest Resources of the United States 2012.