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If the mills were still around, Krueger said, it might be easier to fight the insects. Any market for small sawlogs would offset the costs.
Still, in a region where few loggers remain, it's the beetles that now cover his paycheck. Or, more directly, it's the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The Missoula-based conservation group wanted to battle beetles and to open space for deer, elk and other game to thrive. It's administering the work under a cost-sharing deal with the Forest Service.
The Elk Foundation's goal is to restore a natural, "parklike" savanna forest, which has clearings of grass and shrubs to benefit wildlife, said Dale Kerkvliet, the group's habitat-stewardship director.
The Forest Service estimates that every tree invaded by beetles this year will spell 14 more dead on the Bitterrootnext year. That's actually a forgiving explosion compared with the Continental Divide forests during their onslaught, when Butte saw the ratios between 2007 and 2009 accelerate from 1:12 to 1:20.
"We can still do things here," Sturdevant said. "We can still protect trees. In a lot of places, it's too late."
First, there aren't enough dollars or people to take on the beetles everywhere, so the Forest Service is choosing its fights - mostly picking places where lots of people expect to see green trees. The agency has about a $1 billion budget to promote forest health. That's a tiny fraction of what it would cost to alter 80 million Western acres that U.S. officials consider at risk, where costs range from $300 to $2,000 an acre.
Second, the beetles are changing tactics.
"Kind of freaked out" •Across Montana, mountain pine beetles usually prefer spindly lodgepole pine to the fatter ponderosa. The reason is self-preservation; the ponderosa is far better at killing beetles. Would you rather strangle a grouse or a bison for your meal?
Where beetles have tried an assault and failed, a ponderosa's trunk at chest level shows gooey, pinkish gum-ball-size globs that killed the invaders.
"The beetles have a pretty dangerous lifestyle," said University of Montana entomologist Diana Six. Yet, with a few hundred or a thousand attackers, depending on the tree's health, they are proving they can beat the big guys.
At the university's Lubrecht Experimental Forest east of Missoula, Six hacked into a ponderosa's bark with a hatchet in early July, wedging off a slab full of tunneled beetle "galleries" with squirming white larvae still maturing to the hard-shelled black stage when they fly.
The beetles are flinging themselves at ponderosas as never seen before. Two likely explanations exist.
One is that parts of Montana don't have a lot of lodgepole left on which to prey. The beetles "just munched their way out of house and home," Sturdevant said. The other is weather-related and potentially more frightening if the past decade's weather points to future trends.
Drought has weakened the trees' defenses. Couple the lack of moisture with a long period of inactivity by loggers or thinning crews, Sturdevant said, and the ponderosas are in deadly competition.
She is not ready to call that climate change because yearslong droughts prompting beetle kills are part of the natural cycle. "When does that turn into climate?"
Others believe these conditions represent the new norm because the region's frost-free growing season has added two weeks in a generation or so without increasing average moisture. The longer the annual competition lasts, the greater the stress.
Beetles have gotten into ponderosa before, Six said, but not longer than a few years.
"This time they're not pooping out," she said. "That's what's got a lot of us kind of freaked out."
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