Bugged out 

Community battles beetles by burning trees

Four summers ago, I enlisted in the war against the pine bark beetle raging on Wyoming's Togwotee Pass. I started to fight by inspecting every pine on the two-acre lot where my partner and I spend much of the summer. Sawdust at the base of one tall lodgepole indicated that the humpbacked killers had already drilled in. Were they blocking the tree's conductive vessels with deadly spores of blue-staining fungus? Pink resin wads on the trunk indicated that this tree was trying to eject the evil dendroctonus by immobilizing it in sap.

But we faced a hard choice: Let this pine live, or cut it down.

The lodgepole's crown was still bright green. We could leave it alone and hope that deep snow and cold would return. If the temperature dropped to 40 below and moisture helped my tree deploy sap, it might cast out the beetles. But if the barbarians took hold, their eggs would produce armies nurtured on my pine's juicy phloem. By the time its branches turned rust-colored, the newly hatched soldiers would have flown out to invade another tree. I didn't know then that I could peel back the bark to check for orange larvae galleries, indicating that the beetles had reached the invincible stage.

Instead, I exclaimed, "Let's take out this weapon of mass destruction! Get a chainsaw!" After that, we burned the tree and its invaders before they could escape. Yet this was just the first wave. Our trees fell like dominoes. Even as pipes burst in below-zero cold weather, more orange pines turned blue inside.

Spying boreholes in a favorite lodgepole, we tweezered out a beetle and waterboarded it in gasoline. "Made you feel better, didn't it," chuckled an entomologist friend. After that, we sprayed our 150 surviving trees with Permethrin.

As it turned out, we needed to save some beetlemania for our neighbor inholders in the Shoshone National Forest. We found that most cabin dwellers who escape to the mountains for relaxation weren't eager to join a labor-intensive campaign. At our first meeting, I passed out literature that urged property owners to thin, trim and spray. Afterward, apathy returned, as the Forest Service had predicted: "We never got so many calls about dying trees, or saw so little being done," a staffer told me.

One woman, who owns three lots, refused to thin. "The beetles are nature's way," she said.

"No, they're global warming's way," I said, and watched 80 percent of her lodgepoles succumb, including a sky-brushing veteran that had stood there since before the white man's time. When she sold her property to a dentist, he tried to save the remaining pines by watering them. Unfortunately, he committed a war crime by crossing a fence and pumping water out of the ditch that irrigates an attorney's hay ranch. The lawyer showed admirable restraint by urging the dentist to get his own federal permit.

A couple in their 70s lacked the strength to cut down red trees, so we marked 25 infected pines for them, all spotted with telltale sap "popcorns." "You have to axe them before they look dead," I explained, "or they'll infect the rest."

"I'll be right up to deal with it," a busy sheep rancher promised, but in the midst of a divorce, he couldn't face it. A year later, the bark beetles finished off his lodgepoles; our yellow tape was still tied around them.

After a couple of years of this, I had about given up when the will to resist finally moved the community. Grandkids turned up to clear one lot, a neighbor who had been in denial borrowed a wood chipper, then loaned it to us, and the dentist chainsawed sick trees instead of watering them. And our fiercest opponent finally said: "Why don't we just cut down all the trees and get it over with?"

Best of all, our community diplomat persuaded the last holdout that firefighters might not defend her home if the standing dead trees began blazing.

As for us, our early intervention paid off. We have saved most of our pines, along with a chunk of our property value. But how long can we spray, and what might we be poisoning besides the bugs? Isn't it futile? Experts predict 90 percent mortality. When we sawed up one granddaddy pine that didn't make it, a cloud of black beetles stormed out.

Putting aside those disturbing questions, we recently hosted a homeowner's meeting. Instead of discussing beetle kill and the flames predicted to sweep the diseased forest, we drank watermelon margaritas, compared our visits to foreign countries and laughed at bad jokes. And people said they were already replanting.

Vicki Lindner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Denver, Colorado.

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