Intricate Chains of Connection

empireon match

“In the late 1980’s, a series of bark beetle plagues exploded across the West with locust-like ferocity. The beetles, mostly Dendroctonus ponderosae and Dendroctonus rufipennis, attacked conifers in swarms so large that they appeared on local airport radars to be rainstorms. Some beetle flights caught updrafts and crossed the Rocky Mountains, traveling distances of over 175 miles. What some called the ‘Katrina of the West’ attacked mature forest and young plantation trees until there was nothing left for the bark borers to eat. By 2010, the insect had girdled and killed more than 30 billion lodgepole, pinyon, ponderosa, and whitebark pines, as well as White Spruce and Engelmann Spruce. Human loggers destroyed almost as many in a vain attempt to stop the invasion.” — from Empire of the Beetle

An insect the size of a match-head has killed more than 30 billion pine and spruce trees from Alaska to New Mexico. Its likely co-conspirators? Science points to a hundred years of fire suppression, and the advance of global warming as the chief culprits.

At long last, we have a comprehensive study of the great change sweeping across the West — Andrew Nikiforuk’s Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests. Nikiforuk provides a fascinating natural history of the bark beetle, along with the un-natural history of our western forests today. That tragic combination can be seen in countless dying stands of flaming red trees across the Rockies.

At one point in Empire of the Beetle, Andrew Nikiforuk offers this unexpected and very telling quote:

You get tragedy when the tree, instead of bending, breaks.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein.

And here’s the first children’s book we’ve seen on the bark beetle epidemic, now housed at our Kids Nature Library in Waterton Canyon:

The Mountain Pine Beetle: Tiny But Mighty by Kay Turnbaugh & David Brooks — this book is full of up-close photos of what the beetles naturally do.


There is no human being who is not directly or indirectly influenced by animal populations, although intricate chains of connection often obscure the fact.” — Charles Elton, from his classic book Animal Ecology


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