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Part 2: Bark beetles threatening more than just lodgepole pines

This article is the second of a two part series on the book "The Insatiable Bark Beetle" by Dr. Reese Halter. The first article covered the grand sweep of our rapidly warming forests and the attacking strategies of the bark beetles. This second article gives a taste of Dr. Halter's tours of several magnificent forest types and the dire future awaiting them if we continue to overheat our planet.

For a few years I've been reading a lot -- and writing occasionally -- about the mountain pine beetle's epic attack on BC's lodgepole pines. All this time I've been bothered by the lack of discussion about: "what comes next?"

The media and politicians talk as if BC's epic beetle kill is a one-time event that is now winding down. But how can that be if the climate continues to warm rapidly, humans are doing nothing effective to slow it down, and the bugs certainly aren't going away? Clearly there is more to this story that isn't getting reported or discussed.

Fortunately I finally stumbled upon this tiny gem of a book -- "The Insatiable Bark Beetle" by Dr. Reese Halter. Dr. Halter spent months reading "a couple thousand scientific papers and several dozen books." He compiles all that into an extremely readable and engaging series of chapters devoted to many different kinds of conifers in harm's way:

  • Lodgepole  Pines
  • Spruce Forests
  • The Piñon Pines
  • The Whitebark and Limber Pines
  • The Bristlecone Pines

I have read this book three times now, amazed at what I'm learning about our magnificent forests and the threats our native bark beetles pose in a rapidly warming world. Finally someone has laid out for the general public the larger picture of "what comes next?"

Here are a few insights and excerpts from the book's later chapters on specific tree species.

The Lodgepole Pines

The shocking tale of how the tiny mountain pine beetles devoured half of BC's lodgepole pine forests in just the last decade is fairly well known. (see: Half of BC pines dead from fossil fuel pollution. Is it over?)

Dr. Halter tells that story briefly and goes on to make it clear that it is much larger than just in BC:

Mountain pine beetles have also been on an epic all-you-can-east smorgasbord in the US, across eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota… mortality rates in excess of 90 per cent, as many smaller-stemmed trees have also been killed from intense infestations.

What is much less well known is that the remaining BC lodgepole pine forests in our colder northeast are next on the menu as the climate warms. Even worse, they lack a critical "terpenoid" resin defense mechanism because they have never faced mountain pine beetles before. Global warming is now allowing the bark beetles access to these "naïve" and unprepared forests.

Any subsequent temperature rise of between 1 and 2C will be endgame for many lodgepole pine forests; the species would likely survive in only 17 per cent of its current range.

And the wholesale destruction doesn't stop with lodgepole pines. As this chapter makes gruesomely clear, when lodgepoles are in short supply the mountain pine beetles are happy to attack and devour:

  • western white pine
  • ponderosa pine
  • whitebark pine
  • limber pine
  • eastern white pine
  • pitch pine
  • red pine
  • jack pine
  • true firs  
  • spruce

As we warm the planet, vast new landscapes are becoming accessible to these insatiable bark beetles:

There is every reason to believe that jack pines, red pines and eastern white pines along the lake states in the northeastern United States will, with rising temperatures, also face mountain pine beetles incursions.

Spruce Forests

This chapter tells the story of six rugged and long-living species of spruce that have thrived where the climate has been cold enough to prevent the Spruce Bark Beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) from reaching dangerous levels.

More in Climate Snapshot

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A flood of mega-carbon projects threaten to quickly turn British Columbia into one of the world's dirtiest economies.

Car Carbon series: cool new animation, plus the jaw-dropping impact it left out

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Before one gets very

Before one gets very depressed about this, read and follow the links below.  The truth isn't as described above.  No question climate is changing like it always has but the rate and amount of change is nothing at all out of the ordinary.   Why are some scientists singing the gospel of man-made climate change driven by CO2?  Just follow the money.  They have to toe the line to keep their grants coming. http://www.climatedepot.com/a/18662/125-International-Scientists-Rebuke-UN-for-Climate-Claims-in-Open-Letter-Global-warming-that-has-not-occurred-cannot-have-caused-extreme-weather-of-past-few-years

Climate change is only part

Climate change is only part of the problem.  The root of the problem (at least as far as the Mountain Pine Beetle in BC) is monoculture in our forests.  We have be cutting down diverse forests and replanting with nothing but pine.  So really, there is no Mountain Pine Beetle infestation, there is only a Pine infestation and nature's response is to send out the Mountain Pine Beetle to restore the balance.

monoculture is not the norm

Monoculture treeplanting is an old myth that needs some debunking. I was involved in treeplanting and silviculture surveying for 25 years, the last 5 years of which was surveying pine and mixed species forests in south central BC for mountain pine beetle assessment, from the standpoint of reforestation opportunities. In every case, the species mix that was recommended for replanting or underplanting MPB killed forests was the same mix of species that was historically present on, and most suited for, the site. It was a strict requirement that planted species be selected for the site conditions to the extent that the seedlings should have been grown from seeds harvested in the same biogeoclimatic zones. Sure that simplifies the ecosystem and it's far from mimicking natural forest succession, but it's not monoculture - unless the original forest was also a monoculture. 

monocultures of pine are still very much the norm

I planted tens of thousands of pine trees around Prince George throughout the late 1990's and early 2000's, sometimes nothing but pine.  They now are going to these exact same blocks and herbicide spraying them to kill the quaking aspen.  30% of every block declared free growing gets sprayed in the parts of the Prince George Forest District.  The result? A pine monoculture where there is practically no other species but lodgepole pine.  Don't believe me?  Go drive down the Blackwater Road, the 1400 Road, the Pelican Lake Road, and any logging road in between, and tell me what you see.  Better yet, wait till late August and follow the helicopters and watch them lace the young, diverse forests of aspen and pine with chemicals to continue this insane policy of establishing pine monocultures.  Maybe they do plant a broader mix of conifers over the past several years than before, but silviculture treatments are still reinforcing past mistakes. For more information check out www.stopthespraybc.com. 

monoculture is not the norm

I am not certain if the person concerned about pine monocultures is familiar with the concept of forest succession and biogeoclimatic zones and how different species are suited to different sites at different times. Glyphosate spraying aside, which is a different issue, Free Growing standards require that all sities be planted according to what is best suited to the sites. In many cases, pine are best suited to the site. If not before then after the stand reaches Free Growing, the understorey trees will often regenerate naturally as well. Pine requires sun and is a common pioneer species in many sites in the PG region, but aspen, spruce, cottonwood, and other species natural to the site will ultimately fill in naturally where they have previously grown (and sometimes temporarily suppressed by herbicides or brushing) and often overtake the pine in the course of time and succession. Also, pine monocultures are historically common as pioneer stands in many parts of Canada after a forest fire, which naturally stimulates the cones to open up and release their seeds for germination. 

New Trees

I don't know much about forestation but...Why don't they just plant different kinds of trees that the beetles don't like? maybe that's an idea that could work?