Commissioners request disaster declaration for mountain pine beetle epidemic

By Sarah Pridgeon

Governor Matt Mead has been asked to petition the President to declare Crook County an emergency disaster area in response to the mountain pine beetle epidemic now spreading into the county’s forested lands. Representatives from the State will attend the next meeting of the Board of County Commissioners to gather information about the problem.

The Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution to request emergency status in December. The resolution states that, unless the epidemic is addressed immediately and the risks posed by dead and dying trees are reduced, there will be an increasingly great risk to life and property.

State representatives including Doug Miyamoto, Deputy Director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Rebecca Fitzgerald, National Resource Policy Advisor for the Governor’s Office, and Bill Crapser, Wyoming State Forester, are scheduled to attend the next meeting of the board. The purpose of their visit, says Jeanne Whalen, Board Member, is to gather more information about the application to present to the Governor.

“We’re getting our ducks in a row, we want to be able to respond to any questions they may throw at us,” says Whalen. “South Dakota has been pro-active and given money to tackle the problem – we’re asking for our state to do the same.”

Trees on thousands of acres of the South Dakota side of the Black Hills are already dead or dying due to the beetle epidemic and other national forests in Wyoming, including the Medicine Bow, have been ravaged by the beetles. The epidemic is now spreading into the Black Hills National Forest and private forested lands within Crook and Weston Counties.

“Nobody did anything with these other places, and we already have beetles in the Sand Creek area,” says Whalen. “We don’t want our forests to end up like that, so we’re asking the State for money to help us fight the problem before they reach the Bearlodge.”

Crook County is joining with State and Federal Agencies and private entities to control the epidemic, but has “insufficient resources” to prevent it from spreading through the county without additional State and Federal assistance. The Wyoming Division of State Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service, Crook County Weed and Pest District and private industry have all informed the Board of Commissioners that the most cost-effective method of controlling the disaster would be to attack it immediately.

“Cut-and-chunk seems to be the best solution,” says Whalen. “The infested trees would be cut down before the larvae have a chance to hatch and fly away.”

The resolution claims that “conditions of extreme peril to people, property and the environment” now exist, caused by the “extraordinary number” of dead, dying and diseased trees. Likely risks from the epidemic are said to include a risk of “catastrophic fire in an area with limited routes for the evacuation of people and emergency response”, potential for flooding, erosion and other environmental and economic damage and hazard from falling trees.

If the epidemic continues unabated, according to the resolution, it could devastate the forest products industry, which is one of the county’s largest private employers. This would cause a loss of both jobs and source of income for the U.S. Forest Service, Crook County and private landowners.

The infestation will also have a significant impact on private landowners, says Whalen. “One man bought his dream plot, a 40-acre piece of land near Custer, only to discover that every single tree on his land had to be cut down. We want to help small landowners keep their land intact.”

The public is invited to attend the meeting with the State representatives on February 7 from 10-11 a.m. in the Commissioner’s Room at the Crook County Courthouse; proceedings may be moved to the basement if attendee numbers are high. A series of local informational meetings for those affected by the problem will be announced shortly.