Changing climatic conditions and an abundance of dense, mature pine forests have helped to spur an epidemic of mountain pine beetles larger than any in recorded history. Millions of forested acres have been heavily impacted and have experienced extreme rates of tree mortality. This has raised concerns among many people that the death, desiccation, and decomposition of the overstory could have dramatic and negative consequences for affected ecosystems. Compromised water quality, increased fire danger, and losses in timber production are among the primary concerns of what could lie ahead for beetle-stricken landscapes.
Researchers at the Rocky Mountain Research Station have been studying the current outbreak since its inception in hopes of shedding light on what the future might hold after the waves of mountain pine beetles recede. Through ongoing studies focused on the water, vegetation, fuels, and management practices employed in infested forests, they are beginning to piece together a picture of the long-term change that surging beetle numbers impart on the land. While much remains to be learned about the current outbreak of mountain pine beetles, researchers are already finding that beetles may impart a characteristic critically lacking in many pine forests today: structural complexity and species diversity.