Beetle battle moves north

2011-08-22T07:00:00Z 2014-09-10T09:56:38Z Beetle battle moves northKevin Woster Journal staff Rapid City Journal
August 22, 2011 7:00 am  • 

Battle lines in the war against the mountain pine beetle are shifting north in the Black Hills, as hordes of the burrowing bugs emerge from dying pine trees to infect whole new sections of forest.

The spread of the beetle, which has already been estimated by U.S. Forest Service specialists to have damaged 400,000 acres of the 1.2-million acre Black Hills National Forest over the past 14 years, is painfully clear this summer in new swaths of the forest marked by the red-brown color of dead trees.

And those marred sections of forest will expand next year, as the trees killed by the beetles flying now begin to turn rusty brown.

“It’s spreading north real quick,” said timber industry spokesman Carson Engelskirger, forest program manager for the Black Hills Forest Resource Association in Rapid City. “Now all the way from Custer north into the northern Black Hills you’ll find forest with bugs in it.”

The Custer Peak area near Deadwood is one of the more dramatic examples of the northern explosion of the bugs. It showed up in alarming ways during a recent aerial survey of the Black Hills by the forest resource group.

“This year it blew up. I mean it’s huge,” Engelskirger said. “We’re trying to figure out what our strategy is moving forward. It’s all hands on deck right now.”

One of those hands is an important one. Gov. Dennis Daugaard will have a news conference near Hill City today to announce a major new state initiative in the battle against the beetle. Daugaard will be joined by officials for the Black Hills National Forest, state foresters, legislators and local government leaders.

The Daugaard plan is expected to involve more cooperation between federal, state and local governments as well as private landowners confronting beetle damage on their own property.

Whatever the details of the cooperative plan to be announced by the governor, it will have to include money. Tree thinning operations to make dense stands of forest less vulnerable to beetle infestation and “sanitation” work to clean up and remove already infected trees take cash -- and plenty of it -- to be effective.

But they also might require more flexibility or assistance from federal officials who manage the forest, which is something Engelskirger and his organization have been pushing.

Although the process for approving timber sales and treatment programs has improved it still is hampered by regulations, such as those that set parts of the forest aside for special management for certain plant or wildlife species, Engelskirger said. The intent of the special areas might be good, but the practical effect of setting areas off limits to tree thinning impedes the fight to slow the spread of beetles, he said.

“Every project has areas thrown out, for plants, scenic objectives, sensitive animals -- there’s a whole list of stuff that leads to certain areas can be declared outside the project work. And that’s where the bugs go,” Engelskirger said. “The bugs don’t care about scenic views or sensitive habitats. They do what they do, which is infest overstocked forest where trees are too dense.”

Craig Bobzien, supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest, understands that concern. But he also maintains that part of the beetle management program must allow for efforts to preserve key areas of forest for wildlife and ecological benefits.

It’s unlikely that the beetle will wipe out all those areas, and preserving them in a manner that maintains their value is important, Bobzien said.

“In some of those areas where beetles are threatening, we still need to maintain some forest structure,” he said. “I’m responsible for making sure we’ve got the habitats for sensitive species, so we don’t trend them toward listing as federally endangered species.”

Others criticize the Forest Service for what they believe are exaggerated estimates of damage to the forest by beetles. Brian Brademeyer, a spokesman for the environmental group Friends of the Norbeck, argues that the actual acres of beetle damage are probably no more than a quarter of the 400,000-plus-acre estimate used by the Forest Service.

Brademeyer and some other environmentalists have argued that the Forest Service and timber industry use flawed techniques to estimate beetle damage and exaggerate the problem in order to justify expanding logging and allow short cuts on project reviews. The intensive beetle war is an overreaction to a bug that is part of Black Hills history and ecology, they say.

“Beetle impacts are being intentionally exaggerated,” Brademeyer said.

Bobzien said there is no exaggeration of affected acres, intentional or otherwise. The process for counting isn’t exact, but a combination of GPS computer mapping and high-resolution aerial photography allows the beetle devastation to be effectively estimated, he said.

Going into this year, the total estimate was 400,000 acres, which included estimates of new beetle damage of 22,000 acres in 2009 and 44,000 acres in 2010. This year’s crop of beetles is flying now from dead trees to infest healthy ones, so the estimate for this year isn’t yet done.

But early indications are not good. Those indicators include reports from personnel in helicopters involved in fighting forest fires. They indicate more new acres than last year, said Frank Carroll, a public affairs officer for the Black Hills National Forest.

“We believe we will have at least 40,000 (new) acres affected this year and probably more,” Carroll said. “It’s astonishing. The bugs are moving in all directions, but very strongly to the north.”

Pine trees infested by the bugs can only be identified by close-up inspection. They won’t show up as dead trees from a distance or in aerial photography for months.

“This year the infested trees look fine,” Carroll said. “They’re dead but they don’t know they’re dead.”

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or


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(10) Comments

  1. From The Hills
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    From The Hills - August 23, 2011 7:25 am
    I'm guessing that badhand does not live in the Black Hills (Rapid City does not count) or he (she) would not be so quick to promote burning 50,000 acres a year. Fire can be used as a management tool, but is very expensive to control. Proper timber harvesting can do the same thing without endangering lives and property or costing the tax payers millions of dollars. Timber harvesting provides tax paying year round jobs, support for our school districts, and a product that can be exported. The Black Hills has always been a select cut forest. Select cutting lets the forest naturally replant itself, whereas a clear cut area needs to be replanted. That is the reason they do not clear cut here. Instead of tax paying jobs managing the forest, we are now using tax money, state and federal, to fight the beetles and the fires. I know a lot of school districts that sure could use that money.
  2. Just askin
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    Just askin - August 23, 2011 7:03 am
    Just askin!
    Citizen101 comments on logging being the cause. whats your house made of bricks,sod or staw?
  3. Factsonly
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    Factsonly - August 22, 2011 6:00 pm
    Focus on overall forest management for the long term and stop trying to stop bugs for the short term. Proper management will provide healthy trees, fewer bugs, and fire protection for the next 20-30 years. Focus on the bugs now, and then again in 2025, 2050, and 2075 will continue to waste resources. The bugs will be back and there is nothing we can do to stop them. We need to think much bigger as we've lost this bug battle.
  4. citizen101
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    citizen101 - August 22, 2011 12:28 pm
    re: Rush Mountmore

    As is typical for most people, you don't realize that the Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture and NOT the Department of the Interior. As such, they are guided by different policies.

    The pine bettle problem is largely the result of forest practices geared toward logging, and the removal of fire from the environment. Unfortunately, as citizens have expanded their housing developments throughout the hills this has made using fire a difficult situation throughout the entire hills. We are as much to blame as the Forest Service.
  5. SturgisResident
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    SturgisResident - August 22, 2011 12:15 pm
    Why isn't the Tourism Dept all over this? Tell tourists to come here for the fall colors right now, don't wait for the leaves to turn in New England! And if there is a big lightning storm in the Hills, they may have a huge, spectacular fireworks show as a finale!

    Could badhand show some proof of the temperature changes caused by global warming? It is easy to say stuff without any proof to back it up.
  6. badhand
    Report Abuse
    badhand - August 22, 2011 10:04 am
    The forest industries are using this beetle issue to deregulate and change the laws so they can go in and cut all the larger money making trees. The only poor management that has occurred has been the suppression of every little fire over the last one hundred years and turning the Black Hills into a tree farm. It is time to have at least 50 thousand acres of designated burns every year to return this forest to a healthy state. These beetles are proliferating because of the lack of extreme cold in the Black Hills due to Global warming and the type of tree farm forest management that has existed for the last century.
  7. Rush Mountmore
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    Rush Mountmore - August 22, 2011 9:23 am
    Mind you that this is the same Forest Service branch of the Department of the Interior, which insisted on letting Yellowstone go up in smoke.

    The beetle could have been minimized thirty years ago with reasonable forest management in some places.

    The way to solve the forest management problem is to have the states take back the property which has been confiscated by the Federal Government.
  8. Just askin
    Report Abuse
    Just askin - August 22, 2011 8:58 am
    Just sayin!
    So these senstive species that may POSSIBLY be endangered by methods used to control their possibly real enemy a de-foresting imported bug are calling the shots. Perhaps Biologists rather then than director Bobzien should hold sway on this matter. With nearly one third of the hills already de-nuded the time to act is ,let's see,oh yeah!ten years ago. Go join the 20 something and down Hollywood funded non tax paying protesters against the pipe line in Washington and stay out of the way.
  9. From The Hills
    Report Abuse
    From The Hills - August 22, 2011 8:45 am
    The bark beetle has always been here, but when the Black Hills had an active timber management program the problem was kept in check. When the Brademeyers of this world stopped the timber industry from harvesting timber we lost the ability to keep it in check. All you have to do is look at where the beetle got its greatest foothold. It was areas where timber harvesting was not allowed. These location than became the seed area for the infestation we have today.
  10. morningstar
    Report Abuse
    morningstar - August 22, 2011 8:00 am
    The most significant overall need is to educate the public on what our limitations are in stopping something that is entirely natural and cyclical.

    Deadwood was named before there was a US Forest Service.

    The most practical extent to which we can modify these natural epidemics is to implement long term manage practices that result in UN-even tree stands. Even-aged stands when they become old are all susceptible to natural epidemics at the same time. Natural forest fires in the past and human promoted clear-cut harvesting have promoted even-aged stands. Selective timber harvest that leaves some large trees in the stand is the best we can do to affect the situation positively.

    Hatched beetles can fly faster than we can build taxpayer subsidized roads to remove the trees.
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