Colorado forests plagued by pests in 2023: mountain pine beetle to emerald ash borer

According to a recent report, the Colorado State Forest Service and its federal counterpart conducted an aerial survey, covering a vast expanse of 36.6 million acres of the state’s forests in 2023. The objective was to evaluate the overall health of the forests. Surprisingly, despite the wetter and cooler conditions experienced last year, the survey revealed that forest pests continued to proliferate.

“In a news release, Matt McCombs, the state forester and director at the Colorado State Forest Service, emphasized that a single mild year is insufficient to reverse the negative impact caused by decades of insect outbreaks and a progressively warmer and drier climate in Colorado.”

The report has categorized forest health in the state into four regions and has emphasized the agency’s efforts. Here are the main points to note:

Forest health declined in northeast Colorado

The prolonged drought in the northeast has been taking a toll on all tree species, resulting in a decline in forest health in certain areas and an increase in tree mortality in others.

Here are the latest updates on four insect pests in the region:

Mountain pine beetle

    • Most impacted counties: Clear Creek, Elbert, Gilpin, Jefferson.
    • Trees affected: Various pines including ornamentals, but mainly ponderosa in the region.
    • Origin: Native.
    • Severity: From 2022 to 2023, the beetle increased impacted acres by six times in Clear Creek and Jefferson counties and by two times in Gilpin County.

Emerald ash borer

    • Most impacted counties: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Larimer.
    • Trees affected: Ash trees.
    • Origin: Non-native (Asia).
    • Severity: Since ash trees make up 15% of urban trees in the state, it’s considered a “major concern for urban forests.” The agency offers resources and guides to help identify the insect and says residents should notify suspected detections to the Colorado State Forest Service or Colorado State University.

Douglas-fir tussock moth

    • Most impacted counties: Boulder, Douglas, Jefferson.
    • Trees affected: Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, occasionally blue spruce in urban areas.
    • Origin: Native.
    • Severity: Recent uptick but not by alarming levels.

Western spruce budworm

    • Most impacted counties: Jefferson, Larimer, Park.
    • Trees affected: Douglas fir, true fir and spruce trees.
    • Origin: Native.
    • Severity: Statewide, it is the most widespread forest pest. After the budworm eats the needles of trees, it can make them susceptible to attack from Douglas-fir beetles, which can kill the trees. Despite the recent budworm activity, the beetle “has not been a significant issue so far.”

The western balsam bark beetle once again proved to be the most destructive forest pest in Colorado for the second consecutive year, even though it affected fewer acres in 2023.

To delve deeper into the distribution of species throughout the state, take a look at the story map featured in the report.

Today’s forests are ‘very different’ than those seen by previous generations

When we take a drive through the forests today, we notice a stark contrast from what our grandparents or parents may have witnessed. The landscape has undergone a significant transformation due to the exclusion of fires. This observation was highlighted by Colorado State Forest Service Entomologist Dan West, who emphasized the notable impact of fire exclusion on the environment.

The U.S. Forest Service introduced the “10 a.m. rule” back in 1935, which required fires to be extinguished by 10 a.m. the day after their discovery. This policy aimed to prevent forest fires from spreading and causing extensive damage. However, it inadvertently led to denser and less diverse forests due to the absence of this natural disturbance.

According to West, bark beetles and caterpillars now have an ideal environment to thrive and spread from tree to tree. This abundance of food allows even native species, which typically serve as the natural cleaners of the forest, to become a potential threat by rapidly increasing their populations.

Open wounds: Colorado wildfire experts express concern over the absence of new vegetation in burn areas.

Wildfires in Colorado have left behind a haunting aftermath, as experts are growing increasingly worried about the lack of new vegetation in the burn areas. These scorched landscapes, which were once vibrant with life, now resemble open wounds that are struggling to heal.

The absence of new growth in the burn areas is a cause for concern among wildfire experts. The destruction caused by the fires has not only taken a toll on the surrounding ecosystems but has also left the land vulnerable to erosion and other environmental hazards. Without the regrowth of vegetation, the soil is at risk of being washed away, further exacerbating the damage caused by the wildfires.

Furthermore, the lack of new vegetation means that there is a significant reduction in the availability of food and habitat for wildlife. Many species rely on the vegetation in these areas for survival, and the absence of it can have long-lasting consequences on their populations.

The reasons behind the slow recovery of vegetation in burn areas are multifaceted. Factors such as the severity of the fire, the type of vegetation that was present before the fire, and the availability of seeds and nutrients in the soil all play a role in determining how quickly new growth can occur.

In addition to these natural factors, human activities can also impede the recovery process. Activities such as grazing, recreation, and development in the burn areas can further delay the regeneration of vegetation. It is crucial for land management agencies and communities to be mindful of these activities to ensure the restoration and protection of the affected areas.

Efforts are being made to address the issue of slow vegetation recovery in burn areas. Restoration projects, such as reseeding and erosion control measures, are being implemented to promote the growth of new vegetation. These initiatives aim to accelerate the healing process of the landscapes and create a more resilient environment for both wildlife and communities.

The absence of new vegetation in burn areas serves as a stark reminder of the long-term impacts of wildfires. As the frequency and intensity of wildfires continue to increase, it is essential for us to prioritize fire prevention and mitigation strategies. By taking proactive measures to reduce the risk of wildfires, we can help protect the ecosystems and communities that are most vulnerable to their devastating effects.

When trees are stressed and their defenses are weak due to reduced precipitation and higher temperatures, it creates a “perfect ecological window” for insects to invade.

According to West, our generation is witnessing larger and more frequent windows as a result of climate change and human-made hydrocarbons.

Trees play a crucial role in our environment by filtering air and capturing snowpack. Their impact extends beyond the forest, as they have significant consequences on the overall ecosystem.

According to West, our daily activities such as taking a morning shower or getting a drink of water are directly influenced by the state of our forests and the impact of bark beetles and ecosystem disturbances.

Ongoing efforts to protect forests

The Good Neighbor Authority, a program launched by the federal and state forest service in 2000, aimed to enhance forest management across boundaries. This program has now been implemented in 38 states.

According to the report, the pooling of federal, state, tribal, and county resources, as well as the strengthening of partnerships and collaboration, provide efficiencies and benefits. Additionally, conducting larger scale, cross-boundary projects is also highlighted as a positive outcome.

The Good Neighbor Authority enables projects aimed at reducing wildfire risk and protecting watersheds and water supplies.

In Colorado, the primary focus is on fuel mitigation and timber sales. However, other projects, such as the aerial spread of insecticides in 2015 to prevent the spread of Douglas-fir tussock moth, are also included.

The report highlights how timber sales in the West can provide sustainable funding for Good Neighbor Authority programs. This is because the revenue generated from these sales is retained by the states. For example, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington can each generate approximately $10 million through timber sales.

Colorado, with its challenging climate and frequent insect and disease outbreaks, managed to generate $1.1 million in revenue. This substantial amount was then reinvested into the Good Neighbor Authority program. However, despite this success, the program still requires additional financial support from both federal and state sources to sustain its ongoing efforts.

To address this problem, West emphasized the importance of public awareness and support moving forward.

According to West, it will require collective effort from all of us to recognize the significance of these ecosystems. This acknowledgment entails a thorough examination of our financial resources. It is essential to allocate funds for the removal of trees and fuels, in order to enhance the resilience of our forests.

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MBS Staff
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