Mountain Pine Beetle Story
January 29, 2021

The Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic was devastating to the Black Hills, especially around the Custer area.  It killed hundreds of thousands of trees.  Below is information from two different articles written about the Mountain Pine Beetle.  The first one was written in 2012 and gives some good historical data.  The second one was written in 2016/2017 and has more updated information about the current status of the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation.

Early Battles Against the Mountain Pine Beetle
By Frank Carroll, U.S. Forest Service, retired
Reprinted from the Custer County Chronicle, Nov 28, 2012, Opinion, p5

One hundred years ago the news about mountain pine beetles in the Black Hills was grim. The first published report of the beetles in the Hills came in 1895 when settlers told reporters "Pine needles are turning yellow and trees are dying in clumps in the northwestern part of the Black Hills forest near the Wyoming. line." The clumps were big, meaning the infestation started several years before 1895.

In 1898, forester Henry Graves said practically all of the trees on many ridges across the northwestern comer of the forest were dead or dying. The condition was rapidly and steadily moving to the south; he said, estimating that 3,000 acres had already been bug-killed just where he was riding his horse in a general survey of the area.

Griffith, another expert on forest insects, examined 116,000 acres and found an estimated 226,896,000 board feet of "good pine timber" either already dead or infested and dying. The dead timber amounted to 1,956 board feet per acre. A modern logging truck holds about 5,000 board feet.

Later that same year, a group of the most trusted and knowledgeable experts in the country examined the Hills. Their leader was the nation's chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, and with him was the famous entomologist Andrew Delmar Hopkins for whom the "Black Hills pine beetle" was later named. The men concluded the epidemic was surely in its last phase and dwindling. If helicopters had been available Pinchot and Hopkins would have seen a much different picture. The plague of rice-sized beetles was spreading rapidly in every direction.

By 1906, perhaps 15 years after the start of the epidemic, the epicenter of the attack had settled on Custer and the Southern Hills.

The early foresters and the leadership of the newly minted Forest Service decided to use timber sales to fight the beetles. From 1902 until 1909 the agencies and the public wrestled with rules designed to protect Black Hills timber for local uses but preventing that lumber from being sold across state lines or even outside the Hills. By the time these rules were changed the beetle threat was coming to an end. Officials encouraged the public to use the blue wood, the beetle killed timber, and many an old cabin in the Hills is marked with blue stain fungus or the galleries of beetles.

From 1903-05 the epidemic reached its maximum destructiveness, killing about 300 million board feet a year. Altogether the beetles killed up to two billion board feet in the Black Hills alone across 750,000 acres.

In 1906 the Forest Service undertook direct control measures. By 1908 these measures were working in concert with the end of the beetle habitat. By 1909 the epidemic was at an end ... for the moment.

Nearly half the forest had been affected over a period of 14 to 19 years. The beginning of the current epidemic is well known. It erupted in 1997 at Beaver Park but effective action could not be taken in the face of lawsuits brought by environmental groups that feared lumbering by people more than lumbering by insects.

Foresters in the early days used everything we're using today (thinning, chemicals, timber sales, cutting and chunking), fought the same battles against bureaucratic red tape, wrote reams of paper to justify the expenditures on the bug fight, and, in the end, what they did mattered. The bugs won about half the fight. We won the rest.

"In the spring of 1948 a battle to the finish was outlined and the matter submitted through the Forest Service to Congress. The seriousness of the new outbreak was at once recognized and the green light to action given - strategies were planned and manpower and machinery at once sought." Yes, just like today. "The almost continuous stands of ponderosa pine timber on the (Black Hills Forest) are of great importance to the economy of the whole region ... the towns of Custer, Hill City, and Pringle are primarily dependent on this resource; and such towns as Newcastle, Spearfish, Sturgis, and Rapid City ... (depend) on this raw material for some of their industries and employment…" About $235,000 was appropriated in 1967 for the critical fight.

Over $10 million was appropriated in 2012.  The outcome in each of the major epidemic was and is "full freighted with significance" for all of us in the region.

As Black Hills Beetle Epidemic Ends, Resiliency Project Begins
By Seth Tupper
Apr 9, 2017 Updated Apr 16, 2018

U.S. Forest Service officials said this month that the 20-year mountain pine beetle epidemic in the Black Hills has officially ended, but that doesn't mean their fight against the tree-killing insects is over.  In fact, an effort to limit the damage from the next epidemic could begin soon.

The new effort is called the Black Hills Resilient Landscapes Project, and the project manager is Anne Davy of the U.S. Forest Service. She said the millions of tree deaths during the beetle epidemic knocked conditions in the Black Hills National Forest “out of whack.”

“When the infestation was so bad, we just needed to stop it,” Davy said. “We went out and dealt with that, and now we need to start moving things back in the right direction.”

If the project is approved, forest managers will spend the next decade working to make the forest more resilient to beetles and wildfires. The work will vary depending on local conditions, but it will include removing some dead trees, igniting controlled burns, thinning dense areas to act as breaks against wildfires, cutting encroaching pines out of aspen and oak stands and away from grassy meadows, culling some old or young pines to encourage a healthier mix of tree ages, and churning up some patches of soil to facilitate new tree growth

“We’re really investing in the long-term health and resiliency of the forest,” Davy said.

The beetles, which are black in color and about the size of a grain of rice, burrow through the bark of pine trees. They carry a harmful fungus and produce hungry larvae that combine to ravage a tree, causing it to turn brown and die within a year.

Millions of federal, state and private dollars have been spent on public and privately owned land during the past two decades to monitor the epidemic’s size, remove dead and dying trees, thin out the dense pine stands that beetles prefer, and treat some vulnerable trees with pesticides.

Mark Van Every, supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest, reflected on the cooperative efforts in a recent written statement about the end of the epidemic.  “I appreciate the work by all and look forward to working together to make the forest more resilient into the future,” Van Every said.

“Resilient” is the new watchword in the beetle battle. According to recent research, mountain pine beetles have endured for millions of years and have reached epidemic levels numerous times during the recorded history of the Black Hills, no matter what humans did to stop or control them.

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