SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Bark beetles feasting on Utah trees are creating a double problem — they're killing off portions of Utah's forests and creating fuel for wildfires. Between 1990 and 2005, two types of wood-boring beetles ate their way through more than 466,000 acres of Utah forests.
Colleen Keyes, forest health manager for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said the Dixie National Forest has been significantly impacted by the tiny predators. She says beetles have wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres — nearly all the forest's spruce.
"It's really something to see," she said. "It's just dead trees as far as the eye can see."
In some regions, the increased number of beetles are considered "outbreak proportions" that could negatively affect recreation, wildlife and watersheds.
Bark beetles are native insects that play a regulatory role in forests. Forest officials say the tiny bugs are an "agent of change" in the Rocky Mountains, helping spur natural cycles and rebirth of Western forests.
In recent years, though, large-scale outbreaks have ravaged trees in Utah and throughout much of the West. In the Dixie National Forest, most of the recent damage has been done by the spruce beetle.
"It's very evident — it's very big," Dixie National Forest spokesman Kenton Call said about what the spruce beetle has done.
He said foresters are now trying to salvage some of the dead timber as part of the Forest Service's "scenery enhancement" projects in some of the most popular areas.
The beetles are a complicating factor in climate change.
Sustained winter cold snaps were traditionally one of the best ways to stop bark beetle outbreaks. Warmer winters have allowed the beetles to survive and breed more quickly. And the more trees that are killed by beetles, the more trees are vulnerable to wildfire. Those fires then release more carbon dioxide, which has been linked to global warming.
Keyes said older forests need to be managed to reduce their susceptibility to beetle outbreaks. Many beetle species target weak, older or dying trees. Years of fire suppression have allowed those tree stands to become more dense.
Keyes said she thinks forests need to be thinned and older trees removed.
"If we're not going to do it, the beetles will do it for us — and they won't pick and choose," she said.