On a drizzly late-summer afternoon John Waverek sits in a white Dodge Ram about three miles above the Crazy Canyon trailhead. The road he's parked on sits parallel to a ridgeline on the southern face of University Mountain and is well worn, but only the Forest Service is allowed to drive through this part of Pattee Canyon. Waverek, a district fire manager officer for the Lolo National Forest, has come up here to prove a point.
He kills the truck's engine and steps out into the rain. "You see this?" he asks, sweeping his open palm out to the immediate surroundings. "Look at this. Does this look like a healthy forest to you?"
No, it doesn't. Even an untrained eye can see slash piles rise from thigh-deep grass all around the truck. The piles of woody debris are as tall as eye-level and scattered throughout the area. The grove is so thick it's hard to imagine where those fallen trees once stood, and their stumps are invisible under the thick grass and knapweed. The remaining ponderosa pines and Douglas firs are packed together so tightly that Waverek has to step through them like he's weaving through a crowd. The spot looks nothing like a healthy forest. It resembles a neglected yard behind some abandoned house.
Waverek says this stand is a prime example of what's wrong with many groves throughout the Lolo National Forest. When asked to elaborate, he chooses his words carefully. It's not doing well, but he won't call it sick. Like most Forest Service employees and scientists, Waverek worries about throwing around phrases like "healthy forests" or "sick trees" because those loaded terms can be misleading and used as political footballs. The issue is too complex to be reduced to such overly simplistic phrases. Experts prefer to use language like "mismanaged" and speak optimistically of "returning forests to a natural state."
Whatever the exact terminology, the general consensus is that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Forest managers are facing unprecedented challenges, from correcting past policies to mitigating the current and future impacts of climate change.
Waverek zeroes in on one particularly troubling sign. He points to countless white and orange pustules littering most of the ponderosa trunks, the signature marks left by the mountain pine beetles. Most of the infected trees in this area are dead and the others will be soon. Relatively speaking, it won't be long before they begin to fall and the Douglas firs start to grow around them. That could lead to a total stand replacement and/or an enormous fire. It's a situation that makes Waverek cringe.
The mountain pine beetle is native to the Rocky Mountain West and, as long as pines have made up the forests, the beetles have been trying to eat them. But never have they attacked them so successfully as in recent years.
The ponderosa's powerful defenses make it one of the beetle's least preferred meals. The trees grow thick bark that is difficult for insects to bore into. Once they do make it past, the beetles then have to contend with high volumes of pitch produced by the ponderosas.
University of Montana researcher Diana Six says beetle attacks of ponderosa pines are one indicator of the abnormal current forest conditions. Beetle populations have fluctuated throughout the centuries and follow the same trajectory of significant climate changes. When temperatures rise, the population booms, and when temperatures fall, the beetles die off. But even taking these historic fluctuations into account, Six says the current status is unprecedented.
"This outbreak is 10 times bigger than any that's happened in the past and it's likely the biggest that's ever happened on the planet," Six says. "It killed 80 percent of the pines in British Columbia, it's now in Saskatchewan and it's expected to keep going as an exotic through the boreal forest and into the eastern pine forests and maybe into the southern United States."
The reason for the epidemic is tied directly to climate change. Cold winters historically kept beetles in check. The bugs used to need two years to reach full maturity, and during the second winter, when the beetles were in the larval stage, the frigid temperatures of high-elevation forests would kill them. Now, with increasingly warmer weather, the beetles mature in just one year and reproduce at an exponential rate.
While beetle populations continue to grow and threaten forests throughout the West, their numbers in western Montana have actually decreased. Six explains that it's not because temperatures have dropped or because anything is killing the beetles, but rather because there aren't enough trees left to support their enormous numbers.
The new concern for researchers is how the bugs may impact high-elevation whitebark pine. These trees never had to deal with beetle epidemics before because high elevations never got warm enough for beetles to survive. Now that's changing. Six says research in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem shows 1.2 million acres of whitebark pine have died from beetle infestation.