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Note: This is the first of two or more articles on the extensive tree mortality now being caused by bark beetles in western North America.
It’s mid autumn in the northern hemisphere, whose deciduous forests annually provide one of earth’s great spectacles.
If you’ve never seen it, consider putting it on your list of worthwhile things to do in your life, as did the guy from San Francisco I once met on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. In western North America, true deciduous forests are strictly riparian and therefore limited. Red foliage however, is one thing you’re not supposed to see a lot of in western North America, any time of year. Theological considerations aside, there are many hundreds of species of bark beetles worldwide, and the Curculionidae, or weevil family, of which bark beetles are a member, contains the largest number of species of any animal family. Whether or not an individual tree will survive a beetle attack is determined by its pre-attack nutritional and hydration states, and the number and timing of beetles that attack it. Tree physiological stress also plays a critical, climate-dependent role, especially in getting an outbreak started. Much of western North America has elevated tree densities, relative to pre-settlement times, either for all trees, the largest tree classes thereof, or both. The next article will discuss the geography and dynamics of the beetle outbreaks in relation to likely causative factors, including climate. I certainly think the beetles are among the most obvious and unwanted early indicators of climate, as they show the Northward incursion of something with no benefits. Although there has been little study done on this as far as I can see our midwesteren paper birch (Betula papyrifera) seems to be experiencing a similar fate. Beetle attacks on drought- and heat-stressed trees are blamed for a massive die-off of pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) in northern New Mexico in the early 2000s. I would like to get some information concerning the siege of a number of destructive beetles, including the emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorn beetle, in eastern forests and if these invasions are climate related.
For those who don’t have access the cited chapter by Raffa, the following article by Raffa and others provides a few more tidbits about the natural history of bark beetles (though they inexplicably use “eruption” rather than “irruption”). I can recall something similar I witnessed during the few years (early 80’s) that I spent in Los Alamos. In many places in the west -particularly through the central and northern Rocky Mountains and British Columbia- there is now a lot of red foliage, but unfortunately, it’s not just in autumn, and is occurring on non-deciduous species. Here in SW Montana at least, one of the preferred for curbing irruptions at a stand level is the application of pheromone packets to individual trees. The linked paper suggested that insect borne disease could cross the country through forests in southern Canada, an area which may be made susceptible by warming. Some massive outbreaks of destructive insects are controlled because the population of their predators increases (due to an abundant supply of food). One last thing, I remeber reading in the Canadian Geographic some years back that at one time it was thought that the Rockies would be a barrier to the beetles entering Alberta.
I cannot find that specific issue anymore, so i am wondering if this tidbit has ever been substantiated? Will the lumbermens’ reaction on the GW issue result in their taking any action on GW? Every late spring, May time, when we get the first really warm day, we get swarms of beetles hatching out in the grass parts by the houses, this provides the birds with ample food for their young, and within a couple of days they are gone, that is what I thought. A colleague of mine was at a conference earlier this year chatting to someone who wanted to study MPB 15 years ago but couldn’t get funded as their threat was thought to be limited.
When reading your article it occurred to me that pheromone traps would be a way to go but that the vast areas and numbers would be a problem. Thanks, Jim, interesting details, but I wish you had been more direct about the effects of industrial logging. Along with global warming and fire suppression, our penchant to clearcut Western forests is a huge contributor to MPB outbreaks, including in British Columbia. Let’s call this rapacious and ignorant forest liquidation, not land use changes or logging practices. The pileated woodpecker is the main pine beetle predator, and it nests only in snags (large standing dead trees). Old trees are burned or removed during clearcutting, to create space for more planted saplings. The loggers don’t care anymore than the coal companies who are destroying the mountains of Appalachia.
And points out something I have trouble getting through folks heads sometimes… Too many plants can produce just as much harm as too many animals in a given area.

But yes, Scandinavia has reasons to worry too, though there hasn’t yet been an outbreak of spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) as severe as the one caused by storm-felling and drought in the 1970s.
Thank you for bringing up the kind of issues that need to be understood when we start creating standing forests.
By the way though, an aquaduct with well designed irrigation systems does not mean flooding the land with water, as the hostile argument tends to portray the forestation concept. Upon graduation from forestry school 30 years ago, I was handed a chainsaw, sent to Colorado, and told to thin lodgepole pine forests to beetle-proof them against the then on-going epidemic (how well did that work?).
Also, I haven’t checked out the links Jim Eager provided in #22, although I will, but I recall finding a couple of obscure papers on a search ~6 months ago that indicated that jack pines are perfectly palatable to MPBs. Insecticides are not effective once the beetle lays its eggs in the tree, they have to be applied before the tree gets infected, but can be used to protect particular trees. BC had a crash program of harvesting dead trees but it seems that the logs are rotting in the stacks.
I appreciate your knowledge about the evils of fire suppression, but don’t agree that the current beetle infestation may not be unique or at least highly unusual.
25 Mike Roddy: I share your dislike of logging companies but however hard you try I will never believe them a significant cultivator of MPBB. I suggest that it would be better to distinguish between different kinds of forest products, at least from the CO2 sequestering point of view. They definitely have been hit by bark beetles although I think that since about 2005 or 06 the drought has let up and the widespread death has stopped.
I realize that you are probably very frustrated that your posts have not been met with acclaim.
My recommendation would be to read the blog entries and the quotes of the posters who are generally well received. The trees on the east coast aren’t turning beautiful colors this year, nor did they last year. Trees have natural defenses against native threats, but they lose the ability to deter attacks when they are weakened by ozone. Researchers in the Aspen FACE (Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment) Experiment, based in Rhinelander, Wis., have been measuring the effects of elevated levels two greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and ozone, on aspen forest ecosystems. Trees growing in an ozone-enriched atmosphere have been hit much harder by their traditional enemies: forest tent caterpillars, aphids and the rust fungus Melampsora. About – property blog, This is a pakistani best property blog which will provide property information of pakistan. The once common and towering trees that were commonly used for making canoes are withering away. We too have the problem here in Sweden, but what i have seen for myself during the past 5 years, since moving close by a spruce and pine forest is the following. Now autumn has arrived, and blue jays and other larger birds are investigating these lawns AND finding larva. Just one little quibble: aren’t the tracheids which transport water from the roots to the crown supposed to be dead cells even if they are located in the outer sapwood?
Industrial logging sends Oregon forest ecosystems into new trajectories, making return to prior species relationships very long term, if ever.
Microclimates are severely affected: streams below clearcuts can contain water that is 6 degrees warmer than upstream. Clearcuts alter water’s ability to remain in the local forest atmosphere, due to reduced friction and transpiration. I urge you and readers to Google Earth the entire province sometime- dense, parched, and monotonic stands are perfect habitat for the beetles.
First of all a bark beetle attack does nothing to the plant water status; water in the xylem is under tension so when cut, water will move into xylem, not out. The small holes and cavities they make serve as protection from creatures such as hawks and martens that prey on them. Old trees are critical to forest ecosystem health, including after they topple, when they provide grub habitat and replenish the soil.
The last time I saw you I think was at a Sierra Club forest conference in Pasadena in 1993, featuring Martin Litton, Tim Hermach, and Chad Hanson, where you delivered an excellent speech (I made one myself that day).
Yes, the NW drought of the 30’s was more severe, but it occurred without current warming conditions and before the western forests had been virtually liquidated. BC loggers have been hard at it for over 125 years but it is only in the last few decades that beetles have come to be the great destroyer of forests. While the trees, Populous tremuloides (trembling aspen), seem to do relatively well in a carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, ozone is another story.

Every summer by about midsummer there would be a huge epidemic of tentworm catterpillers, and within a few weeks every aspen leaf was consumed. The conclusions and studies were so disruptive that it was suppressed almost as soon as it appeared, and I was only able to find one of several remaining copies via interlibrary lending- as far as I could tell, only a couple of libraries in Oregon still have copies. This has implications for insect predator habitat and natural selection of trees, among other things. I saw temperature records of the Scott River, a tributary of the Klamath in northern California, showing that the logging caused change from a wet conifer area to deciduous scrub resulted in a much hotter local climate. You touch on logging’s effects, but for this topic the intersection of logging practices and ecosystem health is rather stark. Dozens of species live in standing and prone dead trees at various stages of their life cycles. Admittedly it is probably a natural instinct that requires discipline, training and education to overcome. 2006 saw the first double-generation summer for bark beetles recorded in Sweden, according to the NYT. We humans tend to be subjectively poor at evaluating the relative magnitude of infrequent, large-scale events. The result recently has been a larger beetle outbreak in spite of wetter overall conditions. My most recent memory of sustained periods of -40 temperatures is about 1985 and that in the Rockies. Climate change and bark beetles of the Western United States and Canada: Direct and indirect effects.
At the time my presumption was that the town (which borders on and continues into the forest) probably formed an environment for the winter survival of the worms (which I remember from my boyhood in New Jersey, but have never seen in any other location out west). In our little valley we have a good mix of lodge pole, Bull (pondrosa), fir, aspen and birch. The locals tell me that its the larva that lies over the winter to become the new beetles next spring. I alerted my friend Tim Hermach of Native Forest Council, who printed out a few dozen copies. Forest biologists need to speak up more directly, because the public needs to be in on this conversation. I realize you’re in an awkward position with your organization, but would welcome a comment about the general issue of industrial logging. In the warm season, warmer temperatures accelerate development through several larval stages and pupation, and in the cold season they can reduce the kill of over-wintering larvae.
Unfortunately now, for the last 2 years we have been noticing that the firs are now being attacked by the spruce bud worm. Maybe we should pretty much leave the woods alone for a while by reducing our wood products consumption to a minimum (we currently consume 25% of the global total), and substituting inert and durable materials. BC has been fighting MPBB in Tweedsmuir Prov park for 20 years and that is close to being a roadless wilderness, no logging at all. About the only good thing that I can see from this latest outbreak is that our property seems to have a lot more birds then recently. This process costs the plant virtually nothing in terms of water, and is a small, but significant part of the overall carbon economy. As this is an issue that I have been following closely, I am very appreciative of your time on it. When photosynthesis is reduced for any reason the plant will re-allocate even less of its carbon to defensive compounds. So from that perspective silviculture and logging practices may affect the vulnerability to insect attack. However, Dan Herms at Ohio State has shown that stressed trees can be actually more resistant to insect attack, at least at a whole forest level. Regardless many of the defensive mechanisms that plants have against insects and pathogens require that the plant recognize that it is being attacked.

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