Pine beetle infestation under control, Forest Service says

The southern pine beetle outbreak that destroyed thousands of pine stands in national forests in Mississippi in 2017 and 2018 apparently is under control, according to U.S. Forest Service officials.

The Forest Service identified 23,000 beetle-infested acres in the state’s six national forests in 2017. There are 1.2 million acres in the six forests, excluding two – the DeSoto is primarily longleaf pine, which is resistant to the beetle, and the Delta which is not a pine forest.

The 2017 infestation was the worst outbreak in more than two decades with more than 4,000 bug spots in the four affected forests.

While the outbreak has primarily been on Forest Service lands, Southern pine beetle activity has also occurred on non-Forest Service lands.

“We have worked closely with adjacent landowners and county forestry associations and tried to prevent or minimise any impact to private lands,” Jim Meeker, an entomologist with the Forest Service, said in a prepared statement.

“I’m really hopeful that this is the last year of outbreak conditions. However, we still need to continue with the ongoing suppression work where necessary,” Meeker said.

The beetle, a native insect, is the most destructive forest pest in the South, both in economic and ecological impacts. In the absence of pine beetle suppression, large-scale pine mortality occurs, destroying endangered species habitat, recreation opportunities, timber, and other property values.

In recent surveys, forest workers identified about 100 small spots (an acre or less) in the Homochitto and Bienville Forests for cutting and removal of infested trees. There has been negligible activity in the Holly Springs and Tombigbee forests, officials said in a release.

“Our plan is to increase the scale and pace of our restoration efforts in forest areas damaged by the southern pine beetle infestations,” said Carl Petrick, forest supervisor for the National Forests in Mississippi. “Ultimately, this will lead to healthier, more resilient forests that are made up of more species-appropriate tree stands.”

Scientists believe there were several reasons for the severe outbreaks, including weather patterns favorable for beetle success (while hampering suppression efforts) over the last several years as well as an abundance of moderate to high density pine stands that are highly susceptible to infestation by the insect, and, lastly, the inability to conduct timely and comprehensive suppression measures in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Forest protection efforts have focused on a strategy where the infested trees are cut and removed as part of timber sales. In 2018, the forest sold 26 suppression/salvage sales accounting for 105 million board feet of timber. Cut and remove is the preferred and most effective measure to suppress the spread of the pest.