Battling beetles badly

Missoula Independent
by Jessie McQuillan
October 10, 2005

Logging can’t control bark beetle outbreaks in forests, especially once an epidemic is underway, according to a report released Oct. 5 and hailed by former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck as “the most useful publication on the topic of forests and forest pests that I have seen.”

Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of Portland’s Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and author of the report (available at, hopes his unprecedented look at more than 300 studies on the topic will help forest managers learn what works and what doesn’t.

“I think in a lot of cases, foresters are trying to do what they think is right,” Black says. “But they’ve learned that you can log to control insects, so they move forward with that when they haven’t looked at all the  available data.”

The tiny native bugs that eat a variety of coniferous tree species have been booming across the West, Montana included. One ongoing, high-profile project designed in part to address bark beetles is the Middle
East Fork Hazardous Fuel Reduction project near Sula, where Douglas Fir bark beetles had infested 4,000 acres by 2004, according to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). The agency’s preferred alternative, which treats about 6,500 acres and commercially logs about 3,800, was designed to reduce wildfire risk for nearby communities and address the bark beetle epidemic, according to the FEIS.

Black, who submitted project comments reflecting his concern that bark beetles were cited as a justification for logging, says logging simply doesn’t get rid of bugs, and can cause future epidemics by simplifying
the forest makeup.  Sheryl Meekin, the Bitterroot National Forest silvaculturist who responded to Black’s comments in the FEIS, but hasn’t seen his report, says the Forest Service alternative doesn’t attempt to control beetles, and that thinning will make the forest more resilient to attacks.

Black’s report found mixed results on thinning—sometimes it works and other times “it absolutely doesn’t do any good,” he says.  He also sees value in leaving behind beetle- killed trees, since dozens of bark beetle
predators—birds, other beetles and parasites—live in snags.  “They’re like the condominiums of the
forest,” Black says.