The pine beetle epidemic in the Black Hills continued to spread in 2012, as the total area of forest identified as being infested reached 416,000 acres.
That updated estimate includes 11,000 new acres of infested forest identified during an aerial survey in South Dakota and Wyoming last summer. The additional 11,000 acres were actually hit by the beetles in 2011 but didn't turn brownish-red so they could be identified by air until 2012.
New acres infested last year won't be visible by air until this summer.
As federal officials crunch the numbers from the 2012 survey, state forestry specialists are reminding landowners that the cut-and-chunk treatment of pine trees infested with beetles must be finished by March 1. After that date, the cut-and-chunk method is no longer effective. Other methods, including removal of the trees, may continue after that date.
Cut and chunk is one of the cheaper methods of sanitizing beetle-infested trees before the bugs born under the bark of trees hit last year fly out this summer.
Whatever the method used, the fight continues in a bug infestation that began in 1996. And while there have been years with much higher expansion than 11,000 acres, the total recorded last year still tells the story of continued beetle spread.
"Really, to have that many new acres that haven't been touched before, it certainly signifies that in parts of the forest the epidemic is still expanding, still growing," said Kurt Allen, an entomologist with the Black Hills National Forest staff. "As interesting as this ride has been, we would hope that sooner or later we're not expanding."
Infestations have jumped around since the beginning of the epidemic, with a hard hit in the forest near Sturgis before the real epicenter of bug damage emerged in the south-central Black Hills.
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The pine forest in the Black Elk Wilderness around Harney Peak was devastated by beetles, in part because of restrictions on activities in the wilderness that prevented an effective response. But the surrounding Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, national forest and Custer State Park forest also were hard hit.
In the last few years, large swaths of bug trees have turned up in the Rochford area, around Deerfield Reservoir and on into the northern Black Hills. The northern Hills is the main focus of new outbreaks now.
In December, Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien signed an implementation decision for a response project to fight the beetle. The plan involves treatments on parts of 248,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest considered at high risk for infestation.
The projects include thinning of about 122,000 acres of forest and constructing up to 50 miles of new roads over five to seven years. The projects are aimed at reducing the threat of wildfire and slowing the beetles' spread.
"Implementing the mountain pine beetle project is our top priority for 2013," forest Deputy Supervisor Dennis Jaeger said.
Complete survey results for the Rocky Mountain Region are available online at www.fs.usda.gov/main/r2/forest-grasslandshealth.
Additional information on pine beetles is at www.beatthebeetles.com.