Pine beetle epidemic grows to more than 4 million acres in Colorado, southern Wyoming

The U.S. Forest Service Friday released the results of new aerial mapping showing the mountain pine bark beetle epidemic raging since the mid 1990s has now consumed more than 4 million acres of pine trees in Colorado and southern Wyoming.

In Colorado alone, more than 400,000 acres of trees were killed last year, mostly in the Arapaho, White River, Roosevelt, Medicine Bow and Routt national forests.

In Boulder County – scene of the most devastating wildfire in state history last summer – USFS officials reported an additional 36,000 acres of mostly ponderosa pines were killed by the beetles in 2010 compared to 1,600 acres in 2009.

In Wyoming, forest officials say another 314,000 acres of trees were killed last year, bringing the total to 3.1 million acres since 1996, and the epidemic is also rapidly spreading into Black Hills of South Dakota.

Scientists say the beetles are a natural thinning mechanism for uniformly aging forests but that fire is the next step in the regeneration process. Some experts say beetle-killed forests are not necessarily that much more susceptible to wildfire, but firefighters say fires burn hotter and are less predictable in areas of mass beetle-kill devastation.

Most everyone agrees that this epidemic has been exacerbated by warmer temperatures that allow beetle larvae to thrive, and that the landscape of the West is being dramatically altered as a result. Former vice president Al Gore will keynote a forum next month in Aspen on how global climate change is impacting the national forests of the American West.

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