Forests wrought by spruce beetles just east of the Gunnison Basin are finally receive attention. Monarch Mountain is working in collaboration with U.S. Forest Service leaders of the Pike and San Isabel National Forests to manage forest health.
The spruce beetle epidemic in Colorado began south of the Gunnison Basin before moving northward into the La Garita Mountains and more recently Monarch Pass. In 2016, the beetle was the most damaging forest insect pest in Colorado for the fifth consecutive year, based on survey data which have yet to be released for 2017. Experts have blamed a combination of factors for the insect’s spread — including drought and fire suppression.
When conditions dry out, spruce trees start to close up the tiny pores on their needles, or stomata. This helps to slow water loss within the tree but it also prevents the intake of carbon dioxide, which plants need to photosynthesize.
Without moisture, the trees struggle to produce pitch, or resin, which helps protect from invading insects like the spruce beetle or other pathogens.
“We are in the midst of a spruce beetle ... epidemic that is impacting up to 90 percent of our Engelmann spruce that are over 4.5 feet tall and have the trunk diameter of 6 inches,” Monarch Mountain spokeswoman Hayley Houlihan said via email.
Between 2015 and 2016 approximately 100 trees were removed. This past summer, the mountain kept the chainsaws revving and removed nearly 700 trees, she said.
The trees removed most recently were cut back to reduce the hazards threatening lifts and other structures on the mountain and keep people safe.
According to Houlihan, Monarch has stayed busy keeping the beetles at bay. Employees at Monarch who received S-212 Wildland Chainsaw Certification are doing the majority of the mitigation on the mountain.
The drought conditions from decades ago have lasting effects on the forest.
“The spruce beetle is endemic to our forests and always present in low numbers,” said Houlihan.
A large blow-down of trees in southwest Colorado in combination with the drought that followed in the 1990s escalated the beetle epidemic we see today, she said.
With the abundance of fallen trees, the spruce beetle had a heyday, and their numbers increased. The spruce beetle population increased to such an extent that they exhausted their food source of fallen trees and moved on to the living trees, which were already susceptible to infestation because of the drought.
Older trees also become easy targets for the spruce beetle, and there’s ample supply of such trees on Monarch Pass and surrounding areas.
“Monarch has been active in its mitigation efforts through removal of dead or infested trees and thinning of trees in dense areas,” said Houlihan.
In coordination with the Forest Service, Monarch Mountain has focused on vegetation management, including the downing of dead trees, infested trees and other preventative measures such as spraying to improve forest resiliency.
“By encouraging a diversity of tree age, the future forest will be less susceptible to beetle epidemics,” said Houlihan.
So what does this mean for skiers at Monarch Mountain?
The process of clearing trees should thin out more ski routes and add a few trails here and there. That and the views may not be so green.
“There will probably be some trails added in the coming years,” Houlihan explained. “Although a beetle epidemic isn’t pretty, we are embracing it.”
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)