Journalists from the Salt Lake Tribune have been awarded the 2012 Grantham Prize for excellence in environmental journalism on linking climate change and the spread of beetles northwards. Their report presents a scary scenario for Montana's forests.
Reporter Brandon Loomis, photographer Rick Egan and editor David Noyce received the $75,000 Grantham Prize Tuesday night at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation's annual Leadership Awards Dinner in Washington DC, for their Sep. 25, 2011 special report, "Our Dying Forests."
It focused on swarms of beetles called Mountain beetles that have eaten their way through the Rocky Mountain forest causing the loss of 40 million acres of ancient conifer forests stretching from New Mexico northward to the Canadian border.
No bigger than a grain of rice, the mountain pine beetle is wreaking havoc on Montana's forests and urban areas. This beetle with a voracious appetite, is a destructive pest that fights eradication.
The Tribune trio linked warmer winter weather across several states to beetle propagation. In Montana it said, "A century of Smokey Bear fire suppression and decades of timber-industry decline has primed thick forests for giant blazes and for drought stress" and is allowing the tree-killing insects to flourish.
These Mountain Pine Beetles decimate trees, "By burrowing into the fleshy layer of nutrient-conducting phloem - just under the bark - which their larvae eat and effectively girdle," said the report. And Montana's warmer winters are propelling their assault.
The tell-tale dead branches of a pine tree reveal the presence of the Mountain Pine Beetle.
The cold season in Montana which once entertained temperatures as low as -40 °F, meant that folk here would start to prepare for Mother Nature's wrath during the relatively short summer months. White for almost six months of the year, Montana's brief warm season allowed for the scrubbing of stove pipes, the replenishment of heat supplies and the wrapping of water pipes while the weather was still kind.
But instead of heavy snow and bitter temperatures, for the last few years there has been more wet stuff than white stuff. This past winter for example, the lowest temperature (clocked just seven miles from Glacier National Park), was -03 °F for just one day. It never dropped that low again, and for a few quirky days in April, temperatures even hit an almost unheard of, stifling 90 °F. It averted conversation from the last expected snowfall, to the possibility of a catastrophic fire season.
It is a fire season that could receive a boost from dead trees killed by tenacious beetles. This insect, called the Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB), the Black Hills beetle or the Rocky Mountain pine beetle, can result in the losses of millions of trees and it is particularly hard to kill. In fact, once the beetles infest a tree, there is nothing practical that can be done to save it.
Extreme cold temperatures can reduce beetle numbers but must register -30 °F for at least five days. Colorado State University says the only truly effective way to kill larvae developing under the bark is by "Peeling away the bark, either by hand or mechanically; this exposes the larvae to unfavorable conditions -- the larvae will dehydrate, starve and eventually die."
For acres of trees in close proximity to one another, the solution is impractical and downright impossible for a landowner, and there is little to no support from local authorities. At the Beetles Montana Government website for example, you can find extensive information on controlling the beetles and can meet with a forestry specialist, but the cost of prevention is landowner incurred and has dangerous repercussions for the environment.
Take spraying for example. The recommended pesticides for killing these beetles have been linked as a possible cause of honey bee decline, or colony collapse disorder. According to the government site, they are also "practically nontoxic to moderately toxic to birds and low to moderately toxic to mammals," meaning these pesticides could inadvertently kill off natural predators such as woodpeckers.
"The current MPB outbreak in Montana began in the late 1990's" says the state, and by 2003, the outbreak was continuing to expand. All told:
From 1998 to 2008, the total area recorded as having MPB activity in Montana is about 3.35 million acres. Many of these acres were recorded in multiple years, but are only included once in this estimate. Over 31 million trees of all species are estimated to have been attacked and killed during this period.
The Tribune's report says Montana's milder winters means "adult beetles that breed one summer and then survive a mild winter appear to have eggs left over for a second go." And the beetles will emerge even earlier than before.
In fact, some foresters and entomologists they said, "believe two generations can now emerge in a single summer, perhaps indicating there's enough frost-free time for new larvae to mature and target new trees before their winter slumber."
As the epidemic spreads, and these beetles continue to munch their way through tree after tree, the cost to Montana's sweeping landscape and once-pristine forests, could be devastating.