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Colorado foresters say no need to spray for pine beetles

Local company continue to offer spraying services, saying some property owners would rather be safe than sorry

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Pine beetle populations have dropped to the lowest level in 30 years in parts of the Colorado high country. Bob Berwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — While some local property owners report that they’re getting advertisements from local tree spraying companies about protecting lodgepole pines from mountain pine beetles, state officials say there’s no need to apply pesticides this year.

“Mountain pine beetle numbers are the lowest they’ve been in 30 years,” said Ron Cousineau, district state forester for the area covering Summit and Grand counties. “The mountain pine beetle population has crashed … spraying has to be based on an actual threat,” he said. “The current population of pine beetles does not warrant spraying.”

Essentially, the bugs have killed most of the available trees. With very few brood trees remaining, beetle populations aren’t likely to reach epidemic levels again anytime soon. The latest forest surveys showed pine beetle activity on only about 200 acres in Summit County last year, with only a few pockets of trees within those areas affected by the beetles.

The changed conditions could crimp what quickly became a lucrative industry with potential environmental impacts that was never well-regulated.

Cousineau said some tree-spraying companies in Grand County have moved, gone out of business or changed their model to focus on ongoing wildfire mitigation projects.

“Unless landowners observe first-hand mountain pine beetle activity on their property, we do not recommend spraying,” said Dan Schroder, CSU’s extension agent in Summit County.

But at least one local company offering preventive tree spraying has a different take.

“We’re leaving it up to our customers,” said Jake Fiala, with Alpine Tree Services. “For people who have protected their trees for the last seven years, I don’t want to be the one to tell them they shouldn’t do it, and then have them lose their trees. I’m going to spray all my trees,” Fiala said. “At what point do you want to take a risk?”

Even if pine beetle populations have dwindled, Fiala said some of those larger remaining trees could still be targeted on a very local level, even if the widespread outbreak is over. He said spraying can also protect trees from other damaging insects, including ips beetles and twig beetles, which can attack smaller trees.

Fiala said there is still some interest in large scale spraying in some areas, including the Cordillera development in Eagle County, where his company has a contract to spray 10,000 trees.

Toxic residues from tree spraying were detected in Silverthorne’s water treatment plant a few years ago, as well as in water samples from a well on the Frisco Peninsula, where officials speculated that the chemicals may have persisted in the groundwater from Forest Service tree spraying in the 1980s. Some of the constituent chemicals are harmful to human health and can also kill beneficial insects.

The Forest Service tried spraying trees at Summit County campgrounds several years ago, during the peak of the pine beetle outbreak, but the trees were ultimately overwhelmed by the huge surge in beetle populations.

Currently, the agency is not using any pesticides on national forest lands, said Cary Green, a Forest Service timber manager.

Green said a judicious application of preventive spraying could still be useful for private property owners trying to protect high value trees in localized areas if there are signs of pine beetle activity.

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