Beetlemania

The hot, dry weather has the state’s reeling timber industry in a catch-22 situation. The drought has left Mississippi’s pine trees stressed and vulnerable to attack from pine bark beetles, including the highly destructive Southern pine beetle.

The best defense against the pests is to thin tree stands. However, landowners are hesitant to thin their trees and lose revenue from selling at an unattractive price.

In short, cash-strapped landowners are risking long-term, devastating losses in the hopes of avoiding near-term losses from selling thinned trees during an extremely weak market.

Dr. Andy Londo, forestry professor with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said, “They are waiting for prices to increase $1 or $2 per ton while risking catastrophic losses in the future. This does not make sense biologically or economically.”

As the drought continues, scientists and industry professionals are concerned that the state could see an infestation of Southern pine beetles as is currently being experienced in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. There, approximately 389 potential infestations totaling more than 14,000 acres were recorded in 2010.

The good news is scientists are not overly concerned about an infestation of Southern pine beetles here in the Magnolia State. They historically do not occur in significant numbers in Mississippi.

However, Mississippi plays host to four other types of pine bark beetles. These include the black turpentine beetle and three varieties of Ips beetles.

It is the Ips beetle family that has scientists most concerned in Mississippi. Ips beetles are common in the state, every year accounting for tree losses. However, they are weak flyers, so they tend to “spot kill” trees, causing mortality in a small area but not wiping out hundreds or thousands of acres like the Southern pine beetle can.

Still, left unchecked, the Ips beetle, which is about half the size of a grain of rice, can hurt landowners’ bottom line, especially those who own small pine stands. They bore into trees, lay their eggs, and after the larvae mature they disperse to other trees to begin the cycle anew.

“If you own, say, just 20 acres, the loss of just a few trees can hurt,” said Dr. Glenn Hughes, also a forestry professor with MSU Extension.

Ips beetles are always a concern, but especially so during the drought this year. Stressed trees do not produce significant pitch, a substance that trees produce that ward off infestations.

Chemical treatment is ineffective in defending trees or exterminating the pest, said Hughes. Thinning trees relieves them of stress from competition, leaving a hardier tree that is more able to ward off the pests.

Scientists are already reporting signs of heavy Ips beetle infestations, noting trees with brown needles. However, Ips beetles are slow movers, and they are relatively inactive during hot weather. It is later in the summer and into the fall before landowners and foresters will know exactly the extent of infestation.

Hughes said it could be the winter or early part of next year before the extent of the losses is known. But he added that he would be surprised if Ips numbers are not up — perhaps significantly.

“I think we’ll definitely see an increase (of Ips beetle infestation),” Hughes said. “The question is how much will it increase.”

All of this comes at a time when the state’s timber industry is in an historic slump. The weak market coupled with poor new home starts has forced loggers and mills out of business and left the entire industry in an economic vise.

There is one bright spot, however; there is financial assistance available to help landowners mitigate the loss of selling thinned trees.

The Mississippi Forestry Commission, in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and Mississippi State University Extension Service, is offering a cost-sharing program. The program has a number of requirements and stipulations, but the bottom line, according to Londo, is that qualified landowners will receive about $2 per ton extra for their thinned trees, offsetting the weak market prices.

The funding for that program is quickly being exhausted, though.

Details of the coat-share program are available in “Reducing the Threat of Southern Pine Beetle Infestations: A Guide to Cost Share Pine Thinning Operations in Mississippi.” For a free copy, call (662) 325-3905, or email Londo at ajlondo@cfr.msstate.edu.

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