Western pine beetles are literally eating alive drought-weakened trees in Eastern Madera County and throughout the state. The wide-spread beetle infestation has killed more than 12 million trees, primarily Ponderosa Pines, over four million acres of forest and private lands up and down the state, including the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests.
Those two forests alone, had more than five million dead trees, a huge increase from the 350,000 dead trees reported a year ago in the same area. The dead trees were recently surveyed from an airplane using a digital aerial sketch-mapping system.
Armies of tiny bark beetles are destroying drought-weakened pine trees throughout the state in a fast spreading epidemic, which has become catastrophic.
County, state and federal officials are almost totally helpless against the onslaught that has transformed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest from green to brown, leaving many areas subject to wildfires due to the abundance of dead wood.
Cal Fire Unit Forester Len Nielson said the trees are being devoured by millions of native beetles, each about the size of a grain of rice. The insects, thriving in the warm weather and lack of normal rainfall this past winter, are overwhelming the defenses of water-starved trees, attacking in waves and multiplying at a frenzied pace.
Nielson said many trees that are green and look healthy now, are already infested, and its just a matter of time before they show signs of mortality.
Similar to what happened during the drought of 1977, Pine Engraver Beetles are attacking and killing vulnerable trees throughout the Sierra.
Tree deaths are not unusual during sustained hot, dry periods. It happened during previous droughts over the past four decades. In 2003, then-Gov. Gray Davis proclaimed a state of emergency for four counties in Southern California because of a bark beetle infestation.
Experts say this recent round of beetle attacks is worse than the Southern California infestation in 2003. The beetle population is normally kept in check by the winter cold and normal precipitation, but three years of above-average temperatures and lack of snowfall have provided little defense against the growing numbers of beetles.
Nielson said the dead trees should be removed from private property as soon as possible for fire prevention.
If the wood is going to be traded, sold or battered, the property owner needs a permit to remove the timber from Cal Fire. A licensed timber operator can get the permit on behalf of the homeowners with no coast.
The cost to cut down an average size tree by a professional is about $500, an unwelcome expense for many people.
“It’s important that a professional falls the mature, large trees, for safety and to protect the homeowner from any liabilities,” Nielson said.
According to Nielson, initial attacks occur year round during temperate winters, and the beetles come from standing live trees. When attacks are successful, males release a chemical, attracting female beetles to attack that tree, which quickly overwhelm the tree’s defenses. The beetles attack stressed trees, which have trouble producing enough pitch to drive away the insects.
Males mate with, on average, up to four females, with each female producing 60 to 120 eggs per life cycle. That life cycle, at an average of 90 eggs, adds up to 65 million beetles from one male over about a year’s time.
There are 19 different types of pines in California, including sugar, ponderosa and lodgepole pine. Red, douglas, and white fir are the most common species of fir in California, Nielson said. Forest pathologists say bark beetle infestations are the primary difference between pine and fir trees and other species that are also suffering ill effects from the drought.
Of the 220 species of bark beetle, about a dozen feed on California pines, including the Western pine beetle, the pine engraver or pinyon ips and the red turpentine beetle.
Although the dead trees are adding to the fear of a disastrous fire season, forestry officials and biologists say the issues are bigger than just fire. Dying bug-infested forests disrupt the food web, wildlife and area economies. Falling trees have crushed cars and closed campgrounds in the state. The soil in weakened forests can erode away, taking with it forage material for birds, mammals and insects.
The impact of the beetles also reduce the aesthetics of an area, impact forest management objectives, and require additional funding for tree removal.
Consecutive years of drought have stressed pine trees throughout California, making them more susceptible to attack from pine bark beetles. When a pine is healthy, it can successfully fight off attacks from pine bark beetles by “pitching out” the beetle from the tree. During a drought, pine trees are too water-stressed to prevent thousands of bark beetles from attacking.
Meeting Saturday to discuss bark beetle infestation
Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler and Cal Fire will host a public meeting on the bark beetle infestation, 10 a.m. to noon, this Saturday, at the Oakhurst Elementary School Auditorium, 49495 High School Rd Oakhurst.
Neilson will be one of the featured speakers at the meeting along with Beverly Bulaun with the U.S. Forest Service.
Neilson said people should attend the meeting to understand what they can do to better protect their property from their beetle infested trees.
The meeting is being funded with a grant from PG&E, and is being coordinated by the Yosemite/Sequoia Resource Conservation & Development Council.
Attendees will be given detailed descriptions of the beetle infestation causes, measures to be taken to prevent tree loss, diagnosis, and measures to be taken if tree death does occur. A contact list for contractors with skills in fuels reduction, and dead tree removal will also be provided.
This event is free to the public, but participants are encouraged to register so there are enough informational hand-outs for everyone.