Bark beetle impacts on ecosystems and society

In this post Jesse Morris discusses his research, published today in Journal of Applied Ecology ‘Managing bark beetle impacts on ecosystems and society: priority questions to motivate future research

Forests provide many goods and services that have ecological, economic, and social value. Management agencies and scientists often refer to these benefits as ecosystem services. Some examples of ecosystem services include purifying air, controlling water runoff and soil erosion, providing wood and other forest products, and regulating climate through carbon storage.

In recent decades, many mountain forests in Western North America and Central Europe have been devastated by native bark beetles, such as mountain pine beetle and spruce bark beetle. Millions of acres of trees have died and in the hardest hit areas, such as British Columbia, over 90% of the mature trees have died from bark beetle attacks. In British Columbia, mountain pine beetles have killed an estimated 710 cubic megameters of lodgepole pine, roughly the volumetric equivalent of concrete used to construct New York City.

Social and ecological scientists have used the recent and widespread outbreaks in British Columbia, Colorado, and the Czech Republic as a research opportunity.  The effects of bark beetle outbreaks on ecosystems are often measured in terms of area affected, host tree mortality rates, and alterations to forest structure and composition. Impacts to human systems tend to focus on changes in property valuation, infrastructure damage from falling trees, landscape aesthetics, and the quality and quantity of timber and water resources.


In April 2015, we assembled an international group of scientists and land managers in Santa Fe, NM, motivated by the proliferation of recent studies to integrate the findings of recent social and ecological studies because few efforts have attempted to synthesize these bodied of work. Our goal was to identify where key knowledge gaps exist in our current understanding of how bark beetle disturbances impact coupled social-ecological systems. After spirited discussion we came away with a list of 25 questions that address a mix of applied and theoretical research topics that connect directly with management needs, such as bark beetle population monitoring and models to predict where future outbreaks might occur. In general, the research priorities we highlighted emphasize the need to improve outbreak monitoring and detection, educate the public on the ecological role of bark beetles, and develop integrated marketplace metrics that facilitate comparison of ecosystem services across sites.

The article published in Journal of Applied Ecology is a product of the Mountain Social Ecological Observatory Network (MtnSEON) Research Coordination Network and IGPG: Past Global Changes. The workshop was organized around the Western Forest Insect Work Conference, which is an annual international conference attended by forest managers and academic scientists.

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