Extinction in Real Time

I spent my formative years living in lush, wet coniferous forests. The ponderosas, fir, spruces, and pines were among my only friends. They were quiet sentinels who kept me company while I read and anchored the corners of my imaginary houses. They sang moaning songs with the wind and popped and crackled in freezing winter. Their pyramid tops framed night windows into space. The few cedars' peeling bark blazed desert red along dark forest trails. Summer's heat released the trees' treasure: their scent. This is like a drug to me. It's a significant element of my love of nature. Ponderosa is my favorite because it reminds me of vanilla beans. 

The moist forests I grew up in fed a healthy (and tasty!) understory filled with thimbleberries, huckleberries, rosehips, wild strawberries, wild raspberries, glacier lilies, mosses and ferns. One of my favorite plants is goat's beard moss (actually a lichen). It grows like ornaments in long tendrils which somehow make me feel the weight of the forest's age. Beargrass fills the meadows. I have seen numerous grizzlies, a couple of black bears, and large groups of bald eagles feeding on spawning trout in these forests. It was here that I have had my only (hopefully) close encounter with mountain lions.

Where I live now it is higher in elevation, drier and much sunnier. The bright  glades have a lot of lodgepole pines. The understory is thinner, and you can see long distances through the trees. Tridentate sages crowd Indian paintbrushes in the open spaces.

My favorite trees here are the krummholz. These are shorter, often bent, pines that tend to grow in sparse clusters punctuating the terrain near 10,000 feet. Krummholz stands provide sheltered lunch spots, cozy Perseid-watching backrests, and privacy for diaper changes, nursing, and naps. They're perfect as a tenting windbreak and/or snowfence.

Just southeast of the Lewis Lake trail,

is a cluster we call the Troll Cave. The Little Anthropologists and I wait every year into July for the snow to melt so we can visit. My son and his friends named this place when they were two--before they could hike all the way under their own power. In early July, the pasqueflowers are just emerging and brightening the shade. If we time our annual trek well, we hik in before the road is open and have the gorgeous alpine valley to ourselves. We've seen woodpeckers and jays in the trees. We often see moose and raptors, and occasionally elk. Marmots watch us pass their rockfall and hurt our ears with their calls.

Over the last six or seven years we’ve watched mountain pine beetle kill our beloved forests.

First a few needles turn red, then whole branches, then  all of the needles blaze red.  

As the trees dry, the needles fall leaving skeletons behind. These dead trees become unstable and they’re very vulnerable to blow-down and wildfire. It seems to me that the whole ecosystem in these dying stands declines in health and diversity. It feels dry and hot even in cool weather. The healthy pine scent is gone, and I see fewer animals.

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Three years ago our favorite campground near three wilderness areas closed to the public. Hundreds of acres of trees had died and become a hazard. This area was thick with moose, elk, raptors, cranes, woodpeckers, and blue herons. I’m hearing more and more accounts of forested public lands all over the region closing or restricting access because of the danger.  

This current infestation is occurring all over the Rocky Mountain region. In the last year I have personally seen large swaths of dead and dying trees from Alberta, Canada all the way into southern Colorado. It’s hard to adequately represent the scope of the problem unless you’ve seen it first-hand. Locally, we’ve watched the red trees’ relentless march from lower elevations up into the high places near the Troll Cave.  

On one hand, evolutionary change in tangible real-time is intellectually interesting. However, I have a hard time embracing this change because while the beetles are thriving, entire ecosystems and ecological niches are facing local extinctions.

Forestry friends tell me that some forests are beginning to regenerate: aspen are moving in and replacing coniferous trees where there is adequate moisture, and coniferous saplings are beginning to grow in devastated areas. Unfortunately as long as the infestation continues apace, these young pine trees are unlikely to survive to maturity. The ancient forests I grew up in are already dying, and my own children may only have vague memories of healthy evergreen forests.  

The scientific consensus is that although multiple factors contribute to the current outbreak, warmer winters are a significant contributor. Extreme cold over several days to weeks is required to control the beetle populations, and that just hasn't been happening in the last decade or so.

From the Coloradan

A report, "Climate Change and Bark Beetles of the Western United States and Canada: Direct and Indirect Effects," in the September issue of the journal BioScience said the increasing woodland temperatures might allow beetles to survive the winter in ways not often seen before the current outbreak.

Report co-author Jose Negron, an entomologist at the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, said temperatures are no longer dropping to minus 30 or minus 40 in the middle of the winter.

Every winter, mountain pine beetles develop a "cryoprotectant" compound in their bodies to protect them from severe cold. That protection is greatest in the middle of the winter and lowest during autumn and spring when the protection is either building up or wearing off, the report says.

But extremely cold temperatures for a few days or a week or more at a time can break through that barrier and kill the beetles.

Regardless of what you think of climate science, the devastation of the beetle outbreak is undeniable, and in my opinion, incredibly sad. I visit the wild places to escape the bustle of humanity. The dying landscape is a constant reminder of our appalling stewardship. Regardless of your politics, would it really be so terrible if we begin taking better care of our natural resources?  

All the photos in this article are mine.

This originally published as an Editor's Pick on Open Salon.