A massive outbreak of mountain pine beetles, which are efficient killers of lodgepole pine trees, is forcing Rocky Mountain National Park officials to reduce campground sites this summer as they work to mitigate the beetles' impacts.
Exactly how many campsites will be lost to the mitigation work will vary based on how the work progresses. However, Rocky Mountain has nearly 600 individual front-country campsites, so if you plan accordingly you shouldn't have a problem finding one this summer.
Of greater concern are the pine beetles. They evolved alongside lodgepoles, and so in one sense this outbreak isn't highly unusual. This co-evolution allowed lodgepoles to develop an on-board defense system that can slow the beetles -- thick, gooey resin that smothers the bugs, and even an odor that drives them away. Beyond that, the trees rapidly reforest themselves.
However, some believe warmer winters in recent years have enabled more beetles to survive and so lead to higher populations of the insects. Stopping the beetles in the past have been cold snaps. We're talking cold snaps in the range of 40 below zero for ten days in a row. In recent decades those have been very few and very far between, most recently because of the warming climate.
At Rocky Mountain, average winter temperatures in the park have been higher than normal over the past ten years, according to park officials, who add that trees have also been weakened by a prolonged period of low precipitation. The combination of milder temperatures and low precipitation has aided a vast outbreak of beetles, they say.
The beetles' onslaught has left quite a few dead trees, trees that can prove hazardous to park visitors. As a result, there is extensive beetle mitigation work under way at a variety of locations in the park. The goal is to mitigate hazard tree threats in or near park facilities such as campgrounds, parking lots, housing areas and visitor centers.
Some temporary closures may occur until hazards are mitigated. The other goal is to continue to spray carbaryl to protect high-value trees on both east and west sides of the park. High-value trees are in front country locations such as campgrounds, historic landscapes, picnic areas and visitor centers. They are important for shade, visual screening, cultural significance, and outstanding visual quality.
Park officials say many trees in the Glacier Basin Campground have been killed by the mountain pine beetle epidemic, although they add that some pockets of trees have been saved by annual spraying. Removal of dead trees and standing lone trees reduce the risk associated with falling trees.
Glacier Basin Campground sits at 8,500 feet, mainly in a lodgepole forest. Bordered by Glacier Creek with west views to the Continental Divide, the campground is located on the Bear Lake Road.
Because of mitigation work planned for the coming summer that will lead to closure of some sites in the Glacier Basin Campground, the campground with its 150 individual sites and 14 group sites has been taken off the national reservation system. Instead Glacier Basin will be managed as a first-come, first-served campground, while the 54-site Aspenglen Campground will be added to the reservation system. Therefore, the two reservation campgrounds for this summer at Rocky Mountain National Park are Moraine Park Campground (245 sites) and Aspenglen Campground.
Group camping that normally takes place at Glacier Basin will only be available through reservation at Moraine Park.
Beetle mitigation work will also continue at Timber Creek Campground, where beetles have killed quite a few trees, according to park officials. One loop was cleared last summer and reopened in early July. The other three loops continue to be temporarily closed until clearing takes place.
There will be other temporary closures in the park this year pertaining to hazard tree removal and mitigation work for pine beetle. Some backcountry campsites, trailhead parking areas and picnic areas may be temporarily closed for additional hazard tree removal.
Permits are required to camp in one of the park's 267 backcountry campsites. Updates on the current status of specific backcountry campsites are available through the park’s backcountry office.
To give you a somewhat better idea of the enormity of the pine beetle epidemic, bark beetles are impacting forests from Canada to Mexico and can be found at elevations from sea level to 11,000 feet. Rocky Mountain is just one small area where beetles are killing trees. And it's not only mountain pine beetles that are the culprits. There are 17 native species of bark beetles in the family Dendroctonus and Ips that are known to occur in the park, according to officials. While periodic outbreaks of native bark beetles have occurred throughout Rocky Mountain's history, none has been as severe as the recent outbreak.
Though bark beetles cause a substantial loss of trees, they are recognized as part of “natural conditions.” Several species of bark beetles are presently killing lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, limber pine, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and Colorado blue spruce in the park.
In Rocky Mountain’s backcountry, which comprises about 95 percent of the park, bark beetle populations fluctuate under natural processes with limited mitigation work occurring around some designated backcountry campsites. In addition, there is no effective means of controlling a large beetle outbreak in such a vast area.
Visitors are always cautioned to be aware of their surroundings and manage risk, particularly during times of high wind. For more information about Rocky Mountain National Park please call the park’s information office at (970) 586-1206.