Working together to beat the beetles

By Sarah Pridgeon

Jeremiah Rieman, Natural Resources Policy Advisor to Governor Mead, expressed the governor’s desire to “think creatively at a state level” to tackle the ever-increasing mountain pine beetle epidemic now affecting the Black Hills National Forest. Speaking at Tuesday’s meeting of the Crook County Commissioners, he pledged to “entertain conversation for seeking additional funding.”

Interested parties were invited to attend a meeting with representatives of the governor’s office to share information about the epidemic and how it is being addressed. Presentations were given from several involved departments, including the Forest Service, Crook County Weed & Pest and Neiman Timber Company.

“Part of the creative strategy,” Rieman went on, “Will be to look at the pots of money that exist right now, to get people on the ground as soon as possible. Perhaps it’s time to redirect money to underfunded areas.”

Doug Miyamoto, Deputy Director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, added that coalitions with South Dakota will “certainly be looked at,” conveying that “this is an issue we’ll make as broad as we can.”

During their presentation, Craig Bobzien and Steve Kozel of the U.S. Forest Service described the long-term health of the forest as the department’s number one issue, focusing on all land ownership types because “beetles know no boundaries.” Bobzien went on to explain that the epidemic is “an issue of scale, and it’s a huge scale,” which will require a change in practices to adequately tackle.

The work the department has thus far been doing, and has proven to be effective, includes thinning the forest in advance of the beetles, reducing the fuel available for wildfire and creating adverse conditions for the beetles, said Bobzien. Freshly hit trees are also being removed from the forest, but in both cases the work is labor intensive and there is a limit to how much can be done per year.

As well as “cut and chunk”, sanitization and commercial harvest, spraying the trees is a potential way to halt the spread. As doing so costs $18-20 per tree, and there are millions of affected trees, it’s important, said Bobzien, to prioritize the areas and resources.

Bobzien described the cooperation from other interested parties, such as forest products and private landowners, as “amazing,” adding that, to effectively beat the epidemic, work must be done “making use of the limited resources across state boundaries and within groups.”

The current epidemic is one of the largest in the Black Hills in recorded history, he continued, with an estimated 400,000 acres infested according to the United States Forest Service. The affected area grew by 67,000 acres within the Black Hills National Forest in 2011, with 4.5 million trees now infested.

Aerial flights over Crook County in 2009 showed the local infestation to comprise 33.8 acres, include 412 bug patches and affect 2535 trees, he went on. These figures rose dramatically in 2010, with 335.7 acres affected, 4244 bug patches and 25,178 trees infested: a growth of 993 percent in a single year.

Carson Engelskirger, Forest Program Manager for the non-profit Black Hills Forest Resources Association described the Memorandum of Understanding in place in Lawrence County, where crews are authorized to “get in, cutting and chunking as they see the beetles.” He called for Crook County to craft a similar agreement to “cut to the chase” and get people “on the ground” to tackle the problem.

Bill Kohlbrand of the Wyoming State Forestry Division described the department’s objectives as mitigating new beetle populations, developing a resilient forest ecosystem and reducing the threat of wildfire. “We’re starting to gain momentum,” he said, explaining that dealing with the infestation in Crook County is problematic because 59 percent of the forests are privately owned, among 1579 separate landowners.

The Forestry Division has a proposed project area, within which 40 percent of landowners have been contacted; reaching 51 percent, he went on, will open funding opportunities. “If we don’t deal with the beetles, we’ll still have to deal with wildfire fuel, it’ll be expensive either way,” he said.

To hit the necessary 80 percent effectiveness required to beat the epidemic, he concluded, will require 100 cutters for 100 days at a rate of 20 trees each per day for two years, if the spread continues at a 3:1 expansion. Across Crook and Weston Counties, the spread is estimated to be at 9:1.

Presentations from Weed & Pest described a special management program and attempts to set up a mitigation program, accessing insect management funding once landowner participation of 51 percent is reached. The Conservation District meanwhile expressed its intention to work together, with no division of state and county lines, and use funding received for thinning trees as the best “bang for our buck” in conjunction with the other projects in progress.

Representative Mark Semlek and Senator Ogden Driskill pledged to support mitigation efforts by directing legislative discussions next week towards problem solving and decision making and seeking funding. “We have a unique opportunity here to effectively control the problem, but also a narrow window – we need to get after this quickly,” said Semlek.

“For me, these discussions have opened a lot of avenues of can-do methods I didn’t know we had,” added Driskill. “It’s fun to see this many people come to the meeting to care – this is what this county is all about.”

Jeannie Whalen announced that the County Commissioners will be sending information to the governor’s office, addressing issues such as the effects that closing trails within the forest could have on the community and what would happen if catastrophic fire broke out in Sand Creek, where there is a dense population and a lack of escape routes.

“We’ve formulated a letter asking Governor Mead to do what South Dakota has done, pledging $1 million per year for the next three years,” she said. “The Black Hills National Forest is an island and we need to attack it from both sides – if South Dakota can do it, we can do it.”