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Spruce Beetles a Growing Threat in GMUG National Forests

S. Munsen/US Forest Service

This week Delta County commissioners heard a wide ranging assessment of the past year’s activities and a glimpse of the future from Grand Mesa Uncompahgre Gunnison (GMUG) Forest Supervisor Scott Armentrout. 

Armentrout talked about roads and ATV trails, gas and coal development, grazing, weeds, and spruce bark beetles.

At about 3 million acres, the GMUG is the largest US Forest Service area in the state, with the supervisor’s office in Delta and district offices in Gunnison, Montrose, Norwood, Grand Junction and Paonia.

Over the last decade, as spruce bark beetles have advanced, the landscape south and east of Gunnison has been hit hard. The infestation has grown from a few thousand acres to some half a million acres, and now Grand Mesa National Forest is under attack from the spruce beetle. 

Credit Marty Durlin/KVNF
US Forest Service Supervisor for the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre Gunnison District Scott Armentrout

Forest Supervisor Scott Armentrout says the agency has a forest pathology lab based out of Gunnison that’s reviewed beetle movements and infestations over the past year.

“They refer to it as a tsunami of bark beetles approaching from the southwest,” says Armentrout. “It is literally millions of individual bark beetles that travel. And after they emerge from a tree, they fly, and infest the trees in front of them. You’ve got this big wave that comes out of the infested trees and goes into the new green trees.”

The tunnels created by the beetle restrict the movement of nutrients and water throughout the tree. Without these nutrients, the tree eventually will die.

“It’s a natural event that’s occurring, it’s just on a scale that we aren’t used to,” says Armentrout, “and now we’ve got the spruce beetle doing it at higher elevations.”

Credit S. Munsen/US Forest Service
During the first phase of infestation the trees look debarked. During the second year, needles turn yellow or orange and eventually drop to the ground during wind or rain storms.

Armenstrong says spruce stands have gotten old enough to be ecologically susceptible to the beetle infestations.

Commissioners were most concerned about harvesting downed timber, in order to bolster the economy in Delta County. Commissioner Doug Atchley brought up the fact that in the Uncompaghre Forest up toward Federal Grade, spruce forest is thick, and provides an opportunity for the county to use the timber.

“I’d just encourage us to keep doing more of that,” he says, “utilizing the resource we have in the forest, which in turn helps the local economy and preserves it for the future, instead of watching it go up in smoke.”

Armentrout said the Forest Service has to focus on what he called “high value areas” for timber reclamation, the areas most economical for loggers, given the condition of roads and other logistics.

“We want to see that material utilized too as much as possible, wherever we find it, whether it be a blowdown or combination of dead trees and blowdowns,” he says.

“We also know that practically we can do only so many acres in a given year.”

Armenstrong says the Forest Service would like to increase its scope and scale of harvesting forest resources, adding that his goal for the timber program this year is 2000 acres.

The GMUG National Forest is working on the spruce beetle epidemic as well as the decline of Aspen stands. A team of specialists and stakeholders is working on an Environmental Impact Statement for the project.

Marty Durlin contributes freelance news features, including coverage of Delta County Commissioner's meetings and local governmental issues.