Silent Insect Killer Ravages American West

A growing beetle epidemic is destroying millions of acres of pine forests.

Mar. 28, 2008— -- The American West is under attack by a silent killer that's causing some of the worst-ever destruction to hit the nation's forestland: the mountain pine beetle.

"People are looking out their windows and seeing dead trees where they used to see green," said Sandy Briggs from the Forest Health Task Force in Aspen, Colo.

Despite their small size (approximately 5 millimeters when fully grown), these beetles are doing enormous damage, wiping out millions of acres of lodgepole pines as an epidemic of them explodes across the West.

"We have about 1,500,000 acres of trees that have been infested," said Clint Kyhl, an incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service, referring to devastation in Colorado and Wyoming alone. That's roughly twice the size of Rhode Island.

The epidemic began in 1996, but in the last year it has really taken off. Five years from now all of Colorado's lodgepole pine forests, another 6 million acres, will be wiped out, and the beetles are expected to infest the entire West over the next 15 years, state forestry officials say.

Colorado is just one of eight states across the West that has been impacted, along with Wyoming, South Dakota, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Montana and Idaho, as well as large parts of Canada in British Columbia and Alberta.

"The forest conditions were just right — we had all of these older forests with lots of larger-diameter old trees — the bigger trees produced more beetles so it really expanded quickly," explained Bob Cain, a Forest Entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

In addition, recent drought conditions have made the trees even more susceptible to the insects, and milder-than-normal winters have helped the beetles thrive.

"The bugs cannot survive a cold winter. We have not had a very cold winter for about 10 years," said Rick Cables from the Rocky Mountain Region division of the U.S. Forest Service.

Mostly it's the larvae that do the most damage, feeding on the tree's inner bark and leaving a blue fungus. In effect, the bugs are starving the trees to death.

What Can Be Done?

"The first thing is to accept that this is a process that we really can't stop," said Howard Hallman, from The Greenlands Reserve.

The U.S. Forest Service, state and local officials are trying, but there's little they can do to fight back.

Pesticides do work, but it's virtually impossible to spray areas so vast, and it's also a danger to other living things in the area.

Removing the dead trees is about the only thing they can do to prevent the dry timber from sparking into massive forest fires. Experts say the trees will grow back, and the younger trees won't be as susceptible to the beetles' assault.

Until then, many are mourning the loss of these iconic trees of the American West.

Aspen Environmental Forum

"Good Morning America's" Sam Champion reported on this pine tree destruction from the First Annual Aspen Environmental Forum today in Aspen.

The forum is a four-day summit that gathers scientists, artists, politicians, historians, educators and activists to present and discuss some of the most fascinating and important ideas related to the environment.

Click here to learn more about The Aspen Environment Forum.

Click Here. Click here to visit the U.S. Forest Service.

Click here to learn more about the Greenlands Reserve.