Photo courtesy of Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University;

Mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) continues its disastrous feeding frenzy throughout the Rocky Mountain West, decimating forested areas, draining management budgets and threatening tourism in many of the region’s popular vacation spots, including Mt. Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. Despite an action plan implemented by the National Park Service in 2010, about one quarter of the woods in the state’s Black Hills have been ravaged by the voracious insect.

It’s bad enough that voters in several Colorado communities actually voted to raise taxes in order to help fight the spread and protect the state’s world-renowned ski resorts, which contribute about $3 billion each year to Colorado’s economy.

Nearly two decades into the battle against the beetle, scientists and economists alike are concerned about the impact this tiny invader has had. The epidemic is said to be fueled by a number of factors, including climate change, “overstocked” forests and drought, all of which have combined to help mountain pine beetle wipe out about 38,000 square miles of forest land. To provide a little perspective, that’s approximately the size of Indiana and Rhode Island.

In Grand County, Colorado, 4.5 million acres of stately lodge pole pine and spruce have been lost, at a cost of more than $1 billion, according to Colorado State University researchers.

Effective chemical treatments are available for landowners to protect privately owned trees, but for the crowded forests on public lands, thinning is the best option. In South Dakota last year, the infestation actually helped to create jobs, allowing contractors to “cut and chunk” about 165,000 acres. To cut and chunk is to fell infested trees and chop them into small pieces, allowing the remains to dry out and thus kill the beetle.