Do Bark Beetle Outbreaks Increase Wildfire Risks in the Central U.S. Rocky Mountains? Implications from Recent Research

From the Natural Areas Journal. Abstract snipped below:

Appropriate response to recent, widespread bark beetle (Dendroctonus spp.) outbreaks in the western United States has been the subject of much debate in scientific and policy circles. Among the proposed responses have been landscape-level mechanical treatments to prevent the further spread of outbreaks and to reduce the fire risk that is believed to be associated with insect-killed trees. We review the literature on the efficacy of silvicutural practices to control outbreaks and on fire risk following bark beetle outbreaks in several forest types. While research is ongoing and important questions remain unresolved, to date most available evidence indicates that bark beetle outbreaks do not substantially increase the risk of active crown fire in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and spruce (Picea engelmannii)-fir (Abies spp.) forests under most conditions. Instead, active crown fires in these forest types are primarily contingent on dry conditions rather than variations in stand structure, such as those brought about by outbreaks. Preemptive thinning may reduce susceptibility to small outbreaks but is unlikely to reduce susceptibility to large, landscape-scale epidemics. Once beetle populations reach widespread epidemic levels, silvicultural strategies aimed at stopping them are not likely to reduce forest susceptibility to outbreaks. Furthermore, such silvicultural treatments could have substantial, unintended short- and long-term ecological costs associated with road access and an overall degradation of natural areas.

3 thoughts on “Do Bark Beetle Outbreaks Increase Wildfire Risks in the Central U.S. Rocky Mountains? Implications from Recent Research”

  1. OK, Matthew, I guess that’s opportunity for paper review.

    1) I can only review what I can read. You have to pay to read this article. I have a fundamental principle that if you want people to use your information in developing policy, then it should be publicly available for free. That is, the entire text. I don’t think the Founders intended for the US to become a technocracy.

    2) However, I note that none of the folks are wildland fire scientists and in fact, some are the usual suspects from a previous paper on grazing.. Scott H. Black 1,5, Dominik Kulakowski 2, Barry R. Noon 3, Dominick A. DellaSala 4

    1 Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation 628 NE Broadway, Suite 200 Portland, OR 97232

    2 School of Geography Clark University Worcester, MA 01610

    3 Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology Colorado State University Fort Collins, CO 80523

    4 Geos Institute 84 Fourth St. Ashland, OR 97520

    5 Corresponding author: sblack@xerces.org

    Scott H. Black is the Executive Director with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. He also serves as the Chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Butterfly Specialist Group and as a member of the IUCN Invertebrate Conservation Subcommittee. He has a Master of Science Degree from the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, through the College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University. Scott has authored over 100 scientific and popular publications, co-authored two books and dozens of reports on land management issues. Scott recently received the 2011 Colorado State University College of Agricultural Sciences Honor Alumnus Award.

    Dominik Kulakowski is an assistant professor of geography and biology at Clark University in Worcester, MA. He earned a Master of Science in Ecology from Pennsylvania State University in 1997 and a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Colorado in 2002. Prior to coming to Clark University, he was a research associate and lecturer with the University of Colorado, Department of Geography, from 2002–2007, and a research associate with the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland, a division of the Alpine Environment, from 2004—2005.

    Barry R. Noon is a Professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. He has conducted research on the effects of land management practices on wildlife populations for the past 36 years. During this period, he has published about 100 scientific papers and co-authored four book-length reports to the federal government on the sustainable management of public lands. For 11 years, he directed a Forest Service Research Lab in the Pacific Northwest (USA) and served for a year as Chief Scientist of the National Biological Service, Department of the Interior during the administration of President Clinton.

    Dominick A. DellaSala is the Chief Scientist and President of the Geos Institute and President of the Society for Conservation Biology, North America Section, and he lives in Ashland, OR. He is an international author of over 150 technical publications, including Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation (www.islandpress.org/dellasala). Dominick has received conservation leadership awards from World Wildlife Fund (2000, 2004) and Wilburforce Foundation (2006); his rainforest book was acknowledged for “outstanding academic excellence” from Choice magazine (2012).

    3) Of these, none seems to have a particular expertise in BBs and fire. Now Dr. Noone has been around this discussion, and I actually sat in a room with him and other Colorado university scientists where the FS said “no one in the FS in Colorado is proposing landscape scale silvicultural treatments in lodgepole.” So is this statement in the abstract refuting a “straw person”? Why does this idea keep cropping up?

    “Among the proposed responses have been landscape-level mechanical treatments to prevent the further spread of outbreaks and to reduce the fire risk that is believed to be associated with insect-killed trees.”

    Is this intentionally conflating beetles in ponderosa (where preventing the spread has been done) and lodgepole (where it does not work?) and conflating prevention with “reducing the fire risk”. Again, we have discussed before that fuel treatments around communities are about reducing fuels changing fire behavior and improving safety of the public and firefighters.

    4> While research is ongoing and important questions remain unresolved, to date most available evidence indicates that bark beetle outbreaks do not substantially increase the risk of active crown fire in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and spruce (Picea engelmannii)-fir (Abies spp.)

    But no one ever said “crown fire” was what fuels treatments (in the lodgepole case) were supposed to prevent. If they’re dead and the leaves fall off they have no crowns to have crown fire?

    5. Preemptive thinning may reduce susceptibility to small outbreaks but is unlikely to reduce susceptibility to large, landscape-scale epidemics. Once beetle populations reach widespread epidemic levels, silvicultural strategies aimed at stopping them are not likely to reduce forest susceptibility to outbreaks.

    But people only do this with ponderosa pine and southern pines and it has been working. Changes in climate might change that …and we can’t predict obviously when it will work and not.

    6. Furthermore, such silvicultural treatments could have substantial, unintended short— and long-term ecological costs associated with road access and an overall degradation of natural areas.

    What we told the scientists at the meeting a couple of years ago that I talked about earlier is that the FS (at least in Colorado) is focused on treatments around communities and other infrastructure, not places where there are no roads. And some have argued that once a community and people are there, the place is already “degraded” for miles around based on fragmentation.

    So I ask you “where is this place where people are going into the backcountry to do “landscape scale” fuel treatments for post-beetle treatments?” If you are going to review other people’s work and come to the conclusion that you shouldn’t do them, wouldn’t you want to know how prevalent they are and what the purpose and need of the “landscape scale” projects actually say? Anyone who knows of such a project please comment here or send them to me and I will post.

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  2. Where lodgepoles have encroached on other forest types, I definitely see the benefit of thinning forests, reducing fuels and restoring species compositions. I have seen these problems in vast areas of the west, in the Lodgepole-Ponderosa Interface. Where pure lodgepole stands dominate, it is not likely that management could have good results, other than as fuels fragmentation.

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