Getting the big picture on beetles

Lea Linse
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Until we look at the world we live in from an airplane, it’s hard to understand the real meaning of the “big picture.”

With the help of EcoFlight, a program designed to “engage America’s youth in the pressing local and regional environmental issues of our time,” it was an opportunity that I was fortunate enough to have. On a two-day trip in a cozy six-passenger plane with pilot Bruce Gordon and Jane Pargiter, me and two other students from the valley flew to Jackson, Wyo., to see the damage caused by the mountain pine beetle firsthand.

This little insect has been running rampant through many of North America’s evergreen forests. The beetles lay their eggs under the bark of the trees in the fall, the eggs hatch, and the larvae eat away at the tree, weakening it. Eventually, the tree will die. While these beetles have always existed in our forests, warmer temperatures and milder winters have caused populations to explode. Combine this with overgrown forests full of drought-weakened trees, and suddenly you have a “perfect storm.”

You may have seen the effects these beetles have had in our state. Swaths of red, dry pine trees have replaced thousands of acres of lush pine forests. This leads to increased fire danger, reduced wildlife habitat, and, according to some, is contributing to global warming. This theory is simple: Green trees absorb carbon dioxide and replace it with oxygen, while dead, decaying trees, or dead, burning trees, do the opposite.

This is not the extent of the problems caused by this tiny beetle. In the Yellowstone area of Wyoming and surrounding states, the beetle is causing trouble in a more concerning way. The white bark pine, which grows above 8,500 feet, is now being attacked. This situation is unique because the beetle has never been able to survive at this elevation until now, when the global temperatures have risen. The white bark pines have no natural resistance to this sort of attack. The seeds from this tree are a crucial food source for many animals including the grizzly bear (which has just recently been placed back on the endangered species list because of this threat).

So, what is to be done? Forests are dying, wildlife is being threatened, and the ominous possibility of wildfire hangs over everything. There are some possible solutions, although they are expensive and time consuming when applied on a large scale. Pheromones, chemicals that the beetles release naturally when a tree has been infested, can be applied to trees to make the beetles think a tree has already been attacked. Think of it as a “no vacancy” signal. Also, thinning the forests can help slow the spread of the beetles. When beetles leave the tree where they hatched, they fly only once to another tree where they lay their eggs and die. They cannot fly far, because of their tiny fat reserves. When this runs out, they die. The average flight for a beetle is less than thirty feet, unless conditions are windy. In a forest where the trees have been thinned, and pheromones have been used, the majority of beetles will never make it to a tree.

These solutions are very difficult to use in a large area. There have been attempts, but funding is the main concern. Since this kind of beetle outbreak has never been seen before, scientists know very little about the nature of it, and have difficulty predicting the outcome. Some say let nature take its course; yes, the forests will die, but they will eventually re-grow. Others say that that is too much of a risk, or that if our forests die, climate change and warming temperatures will skyrocket.

Taking a gamble with nature is always a scary concept, but at this point, no matter what we do we will be taking a risk. Will we do more harm than good by interfering? If we don’t step in, will we regret it in the long run? We all have to recognize that our forests are changing very rapidly, and that either way we could very likely lose wildlife and many things that we can’t picture our mountains without.

Lea Linse is a freshman at Colorado Rocky Mountain School.

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